Cable News in Perspective
CJR Fellow Terry McDermott argues that Fox has “simply (and shamelessly) mastered the confines of cable.” He blathers on and on and on before finally coming to an actual point:
Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.
Kevin Drum picks up on this and observes,
Cable news is a molehill that gets routinely turned into a mountain range because they happen to be talking about the most self-obsessed bunch of gossip hounds in the country: politicians.
But the reality is that almost no one is watching. Take away the echo chamber and Glenn Beck would be about as important as a guy on a soapbox in Central Park. Which is basically what he is.
Matt Yglesias agrees and adds:
But the reason it’s hard for political pros in DC to grasp this is that people in Washington are constantly watching cable news. It’s really weird. Obviously there’s no way to make this happen, but I think our politics would get a lot healthier if you could simply prevent anyone from watching it during working hours. People would find out that total ignorance of what’s on TV would leave them about as in touch with their constituents are they are right now since nobody watches cable news. By contrast, outlets that really are influential in terms of determining what people know—things like local broadcast TV news—are never watched by DC political professionals because you can’t see them without living in the local area.
I think this misses the point. The vast, vast majority of people simply don’t care about politics. As George Will is fond of saying, Americans don’t pay much attention to presidential campaigns until after the World Series. Which is saying something, since most Americans have long since stopped caring about baseball, too.
The people who sit around watching Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are a small fraction of the population. But they all show up to vote. More importantly, they’re the folks who organize and influence those who can’t be bothered to care most of the time.
The same’s true, incidentally, of niche shows like Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Nobody’s watching them, either. Except a large numbers of influencers.