Cable News in Perspective

cable-news-logosCJR 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. kth says:

    The point is that no one watches O’Reilly or Olbermann unless they are a dyed-in-the-wool partisan. They aren’t in play, so votes are not being won or lost by what transpires on those programs.

  2. Franklin says:

    the most self-obsessed bunch of gossip hounds in the country: politicians

    I’d have to go with Hollywood celebrities. At least politicians don’t throw themselves an awards show every other night.

  3. Wayne says:

    IMO their influence is being underestimated. Yes you have news junkies like me who watches on a daily bases but there or those that watch only on occasion. It still helps form their opinion. The cable news biggest influence is what happens afterward. The word of mouth multiplies those numbers a great deal. Word of mouth is where most people I know get their information.

    Also the reliability of the source is established over time. When people sitting around talking about WTC melting metal conspiracy and Bush National guard documents are shot down with facts, they and their sources look foolish and the person and their sources that produce the facts looks well inform.

    American Idol may have a larger audience but unlikely to influence a person philosophy or understanding of the world. .

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    Simply commenting on personal experience I have to say that the neighbors I have who keep Fox News or other cable news stations on all day just have it on as a noise machine like I keep on a satellite radio station. They are definitely not organizers and their influence seems to amount only to forwarding crap e-mail summations of Limbaugh or vaguely racist jokes about the Obama administration.

  5. sam says:

    @Wayne

    American Idol may have a larger audience but unlikely to influence a person’s philosophy or understanding of the world.

    And you’re sure of this because?

  6. Wayne says:

    Sam
    You got my interest. Shot for it. Tell me why American Idol has much of influence in a persons philosophy or understanding of the world. Personal interactions perhaps. I don’t see them watching the show and saying “now I understand the China and Taiwan deal” or “living within our budget may be a god thing”.

  7. John425 says:

    The MSM were once the watchdogs for the people. Today they are more like the Palace Guard of the political class.

  8. Brian says:

    I’m not sure I agree with that baseball comment. I was sad to learn of former L. A. Dodger Willie Davis passing. And on second thought, when I listened to Barack Obama announce his candidacy for President in Springfield, Illinois I have to tell you I was excited. I’m still excited about President Obama. It’s great to have such an awesome man as President.

  9. Brett says:

    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.

    I think you might have been missing Kevin’s point. The point was that nobody watches these shows, but the cable networks and their partisans and followers act as if some issue that ends up dominating their front screen (often trivial bullshit, but occasionally important stuff) is somehow representative of the concerns of all Americans, and the most important issue ever in campaign season.

    Nobody’s doubting that the people who do watch them are more politically involved than the norm, but it’s questionable as to whether their influence carries over into the general population.