Media

Cable News Wars

In the desperate race for ratings, economics trumps news judgement and the public is left floundering in a morass of overheated rhetoric and punditry.
In a windowless, sprawling newsroom the size of a football field below street-level in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, scores of youngish writers, editors, producers and technicians are scurrying about amid a warren of workstations. The pace quickens as prime time in the East, 7 to 11 p.m., approaches. Along one wall, a row of office “pods” enclose the staffs for Fox News Channel’s New York-based on-air personalities: Neil Cavuto, John Gibson, Shepard Smith, Bill O’Reilly. Against the opposite wall is the “war room,” where top editors meet to decide what stories get covered and by whom. Occupying the “end zone” of this bustling rectangle is an expansive glass-enclosed master control room, with its towering wall of blinking television monitors, from which Fox News -- the nation’s number one cable news network -- sends its television pictures to 80 million homes.

Three floors above, forty-nine-year-old John Moody sits in a smallish office at an impeccably neat desk before three muted television screens, tuned to CNN, MSNBC and Fox. Moody is the former Time bureau chief in Eastern Europe and Latin America (and author of a pair of novels) who runs Fox’s day-to-day news coverage. He is pondering the question: How did the upstart and reviled (in many quarters) FNC, which came on the air in late 1996, so quickly and unpredictably triumph in the ratings over its two competitors: CNN, the granddaddy of cable news networks, begun in 1980; and MSNBC, which arrived (early 1996) with a silver spoon in its mouth, put there by its parents, two of the richest companies in U.S. business history (General Electric and Microsoft), and having NBC News (also owned by GE) as a sibling?

Few in the press gave FNC much of a chance in that field of three, Moody recalls, but they hadn’t counted on the resourcefulness of Roger Ailes, the network’s chairman -- named by Electronic Media magazine as the most powerful figure in TV news for the last two years -- or on Rupert Murdoch’s determination to mount a successful cable news operation (and, by the by, to spank his old nemesis, CNN’s founder, Ted Turner, who had predicted CNN would “squash Murdoch like a bug”). “We had a message,” says Moody. “More than a slogan, it’s a way of looking at the news business -- ‘fair and balanced’ -- and it rang a chord with American viewers who were tired of being lectured to, of being told that snail darters are more important than jobs. If there’s a reason for our success, it’s that we speak to people, not down to them.”

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Fox executives resent the charge (or pretend to) that Fox is unequivocally a politically conservative network. (“I absolutely, totally deny it,” Ailes roared to Brill’s Content in 1999. In Nov., Ailes drew hostile fire when it came to light that he had volunteered policy advice to President George W. Bush.) Critics brand FNC with the scarlet “C,” Moody claims, because “we don’t accept the standard liberal truisms. They want no tinge of doubt, for example, that Nelson Mandela is the best thing that ever happened to South Africa. I’m not sure that’s true. They insist that the most pressing health issue in the U.S. is AIDS. I think more people would rather cure cancer. They want homosexuals treated not just as equals, but given special treatment. On the street where I live, most people would say ‘no thank you’ to that idea. So if we are accused of being conservative it’s because we haven’t fallen for the same truisms that have masqueraded as journalism for the last twenty-five years.”

News In a Penny Arcade

The matter of FNC’s political orientation or lack of it is, in fact, a sideshow issue in the fierce rivalry raging between CNN and Fox, with MSNBC a distant third. In Jan. 2002, FNC for the first time began attracting larger audiences than CNN. In prime time, the network is averaging 1.4 million viewers to CNN’s 901,000 and MSNBC’s 379,000. On election night 2002 between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. Eastern Time, Fox enjoyed a 35 percent increase in its audience size over the 2000 election night. CNN was down 59 percent and MSNBC fell off 65 percent. Fox’s emergence as the most watched cable news network is the more remarkable because CNN reaches 9 million more homes. (Fox’s viewers are also more affluent, with $64,500 average income among 25- to 54-year-olds, versus $62,000 for CNN and $59,500 for MSNBC. And CNN’s viewers are a lot older: 61.1 years on average, to Fox’s 57.4 and MSNBC’s 52.3.)

But the big story in cable news is the effect that supercharged competition is having on the quality of the prime time cable news schedule. All three networks are battling with the same weapons: talk, opinion, punditry, debate -- not to mention the psychedelic, color-saturated graphics, a rataplan of computer-generated sound and screens so crowded with info-bits, including a traveling zipper of text across the bottom, that they look like pinball machines in a penny arcade. (CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Aaron Brown don’t disguise their disdain for the so-called “creepy crawler,” which challenges people to read, listen and watch video all at the same time. Dobbs has encouraged viewers to block out the bottom of their screens with duct tape. Brown responded to the news that CNN research showed that 67 percent of viewers prefer the crawl: “Prefer it to what? Freeze-dried coffee?”)

Robert Lichter, president of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs and a paid consultant to Fox, says: “I’ve never been able to figure out how competition makes cars better and television news worse.” He means that the struggle to grab viewers is currently dragging the whole cable news environment down. “In other industries, competition creates new and different products. In television, it makes all the products look the same. That’s weird.”

Weird or not, TV watchers are showing up in ever greater numbers for the nightly circuses on cable news. Phenomenally, the average audience has doubled just in the last two years from 1.1 million to 2.2 million, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. It now appears that by 7 p.m., many Americans have ingested all the news they care to hear -- on car radios, the Rather-Brokaw-Jennings programs, the Internet -- and are ready to settle back after dinner to enjoy gladiatorial slugfests and verbal duels to the death about a narrow range of news events (snipers, Gary Condit, Winona Ryder, JonBenet Ramsey, Elian Gonzalez) rather than detailed, substantive reporting about what’s really going on in Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and here at home.

Thus, at 7 p.m., CNN’s Crossfire, with Robert Novak, Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson, James Carville and guests, stages an OK Corral political shootout between Left and Right, marked by shouted crosstalk before a live audience. Fox’s Shepard Smith fronts the network’s flagship newscast of the evening, a grab-bag crammed with more than a hundred news and news-feature snippets, many of them just seconds long, interrupted by pounding tympani, terrifying bursts of video-parlor graphics and sound, along with the oft-repeated mantra “We report, you decide.” At 8 p.m., Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, the king of prime time cable, plays the angry-white-male defender of commonsensical values to an audience (2.4 million) that leaves CNN’s Connie Chung (739,000) and MSNBC’s hapless, overcaffeinated Phil Donahue (379,000) with the crumbs. Other loudly confrontational tussles arrive at 9: Fox’s right-wing Sean Hannity and left-leaning Alan Colmes, opposite MSNBC’s hardballing wonk, Chris Matthews. Over at CNN at that hour, Larry King’s relatively somnolent style makes him seem increasingly like a senior citizen who has wandered into a heavy-metal concert. Bracketing CNN’s prime time schedule at 6 and 10 is a pair of substantial, more traditional newscasts: Lou Dobbs Moneyline and NewsNight with Aaron Brown, with reports from CNN’s bureaus around the world. Fox’s curtain-raiser at 6 is a newscast cum pundit-fest, orchestrated by the network’s main man in Washington, the conservative anchor Brit Hume, with panelists Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke and Mara Liasson.

So how come Fox’s schedule is the big crowd-pleaser? The network’s success is arguably more the result of packaging and personalities than right-wing politics. “They’re fast, they’re funny, and they’re furious,” says Reese Schonfeld, the founding president of CNN. “They’re also very slick and beautifully produced.” He thinks that Ailes -- a former adviser to Nixon, Reagan, and Bush One -- performed remarkably in overtaking an established brand like CNN in just six years.

Waltzing With MSNBC

An evening of cable news watching can leave one overstimulated and underinformed -- endless garbaging of opinion with little hard information except for scraps of news at the top of the hour. (More hard news is conveyed in the daytime, when audiences are tiny and the stakes lower.) No long-form documentaries on subjects of crucial importance to the nation interrupt the weekday prime time personality parade. Long gone is a CNN newsmagazine, NewsStand, which utilized the massed firepower of Time Inc. to bring a jot of variety to the schedule. Creating documentaries and covering news is expensive, says Richard C. Wald, a long-time ABC News executive, now a professor at Columbia’s journalism school. “Talk is cheap.”

CNN’s boss, chairman Walter Isaacson -- the former editor of Time, drafted in July 2001 by AOL Time Warner to energize CNN -- is at pains to build space between his network’s talkers and those of the other two. Nobody tunes in Connie Chung and Larry King to learn their opinions, Isaacson told cjr. The task of the ChungKing shows is to elicit the guests’ (usually fervent) views. In the same time period, O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes on Fox and Donahue-Matthews on MSNBC market their own views as the stuff and substance of their programs. “We’ve moved away, while the other networks have moved toward, the idea of giving opinions,” says Isaacson. “We want journalists who are there to listen to other people’s news and information and opinions. To say that all talk is the same is missing the point of what cable is about and what the mission is about.” Point taken, Crossfire notwithstanding.

The big mystery over at MSNBC is: How come that network, with its enviable pedigree, has demonstrated so little audience appeal that experts are wondering if there’s really room in this combat zone for three cable news networks? In Apr., Erik Sorenson, the president of MSNBC, told USA Today: “Fox is doing the tango while CNN and MSNBC are waltzing. We’re doing a beautiful waltz, but the tango is the dance of the day.” In October, GE’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, dissed his own journalists when he appeared on Fox to announce his dismay over MSNBC’s performance. “I think the standard right now is Fox,” he told Neil Cavuto, the network’s business anchor. “I want [MSNBC] to be as interesting and edgy as you guys are.” The remark sent morale at MSNBC even lower. Microsoft’s ceo, Steve Ballmer, has confessed several times that if he had it to do over again, Microsoft wouldn’t team up with NBC News. The company had put up $500 million to buy into cable news, and continues to pay GE a $30 million license fee each year for access to NBC News coverage. The question becomes: Will Microsoft continue its partnership with GE indefinitely, and if so, why?

The idea behind a Microsoft/GE liaison was that NBC News would be the newsgathering mother ship for multiple appendages -- MSNBC, CNBC, MSNBC.Com, the NBC affiliates -- and that synergy (a term now in some disrepute) would make the whole greater than its parts; also, the deal would usefully conjoin computers and television in marvelous new ways. That structure was brilliant in theory, says Merrill Brown, former editor-in-chief of MSNBC.Com, but the partners are still struggling to figure out how to make it actually work. Unlike the other two cablenets, MSNBC has virtually no capacity of its own to cover major events, and relies almost entirely on NBC News for major stories like wars and election nights.

In July, MSNBC revamped its prime time schedule, banishing Brian Williams and his respectable 8 p.m. newscast to CNBC and thrusting Phil Donahue into combat against O’Reilly and Chung. It was a disastrous misstep, sending all the wrong messages about the network’s putative dedication to news. Removing Williams -- destined to be Tom Brokaw’s successor after the 2004 elections -- “reduced the journalism quotient of the entire network,” says Jack Myers, editor of the trade journal The Myers Report, “depriving it of a journalist who had visibility and credibility.” Donahue started strong, then quickly lost most of his audience, leaving him with a viewership almost too tiny for Nielsen to measure. Barring major improvement, Donahue will disappear from MSNBC’s schedule early in 2003, possibly replaced by former Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota.

Enter Jerry Nachman, hired by MSNBC in May as vice-president and editor-in-chief. Nachman, a rough-and-tumble hard-news guy, a former editor of the New York Post, has been a TV news director, radio and TV street reporter and staff writer on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and owns a Peabody and an Emmy. What’s MSNBC’s strategy for getting into the ballgame? “I honestly don’t think there is a strategy yet,” Nachman replied in mid-October. “But the hole in the middle of that line of scrimmage is so big -- between what Fox does with its daunting, jangly pinball machine and what CNN offers -- that somewhere in there is the right place for us to be. Some mix of opinion and hard news.” Viewers gravitate to O’Reilly, Nachman says, irrespective of the day’s topic. “They want to see him. We don’t have anyone like that yet.”

The people who have owned and operated MSNBC are afflicted with what Nachman calls “impulse control disorder” -- they mess with the schedule and don’t give programs enough time to find their audience. O’Reilly earned low numbers on Fox for years, Nachman recalls, but the network stuck with him and eventually he became the most popular figure on cable news. “When the viewers go to Fox or CNN they pretty much know what they’re going to get. We’ve been a work in progress too long. We need to work it out sooner rather than later.”

War Bride?

Even though CNN runs second to Fox in the ratings, it is number one in credibility among all television news sources -- broadcast or cable -- according to a Pew Research Center poll released in August. Thirty-seven percent of Americans who have an opinion on the matter say they believe “all or most” of what CNN tells them. MSNBC gets 28 percent and FNC 24 percent. Isaacson, who took over the reins at CNN in July 2001, is happy to expand on that. “Just because you’re getting the highest rating,” he says, “doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing. Ratings don’t necessarily translate into money or success or respectability or good journalism. I could get extremely good ratings by putting on every car chase, plus wrestling and SpongeBob.”

Moneyline, in fact, attracts a smallish audience at 6 o’clock, but its affluent viewers are highly desirable to advertisers, so the program is a major money maker. For such reasons -- and others, relating to CNN’s presence in more cable households than its competitors -- the network boasts higher revenue than both Fox and MSNBC. “Under most ways of defining who’s winning,” Isaacson says, “we’re very healthy, very profitable, and growing, opening more bureaus around the world.” CNN’s global reach is, in fact, far greater than that of any other TV news organization: forty-two bureaus, thirty-one of them abroad. CNN International, launched five years after CNN, is the world’s only global, twenty-four-hour news network, reaching more than 160 million households in 212 countries and territories. For years, CNN has enjoyed pride of place in hotspots like Baghdad and Havana.

The threat of war in Iraq is the armature for a mega-merger that could forever alter the balance of power in the cable news wars. Covering the conflict would drain tens of millions of dollars from news budgets. ABC News is the latest suitor for CNN’s hand in a marriage that might save each of them $100 million a year. It would create a news powerhouse that would combine the star power of ABC News -- Jennings, Koppel, Sawyer -- with the global reach and 24/7 ubiquity of CNN. Experts differ mightily on whether it’s a good idea or a dreadful one. The decision to wed or to break off the engagement will be made for monetary reasons, not journalistic ones. Michael Eisner, chairman of Disney (parent of ABC), wants the nuptials badly and so do top-echelon executives at AOL Time Warner, parent of CNN. The question is: Once in the bedroom, who will do what to whom? Who gets to be on top? Who gets operating control? A deal would give ABC News a global audience and CNN would get access to virtually all 110 million U.S. TV homes, rather than just the ones it reaches now via cable and home satellite. CNN’s operating profit of $200 million on revenues of $1.6 billion dwarfs that of ABC News.

Eisner’s devotion to news is famously minimal: he tried to bump Ted Koppel from Nightline and hire David Letterman; insiders suspect he’d dearly love to be rid of ABC News. Both Disney and AOL Time Warner shareholders are mutinous at the calamitous decline in the companies’ stock values. A merger would signal Wall Street that they are serious about taking dramatic action. Trade union issues are a roadblock: much of ABC News is unionized, much of CNN isn’t. Also: the combined salaries of ABC’s handful of news “stars” -- some of them in the $10 million a year range -- equal a large percentage of CNN’s entire operating budget.

A few Wall Street analysts are leery of the whole idea. Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein can claim special insights because, as an NBC News executive for sixteen years, he was involved in three unsuccessful attempts to marry CNN to NBC News. An ABC deal with CNN might not produce the savings both imagine, he believes, or generate the expected spike in the companies’ stock prices. In a research report, Wolzien identified two possible cost-saving options: ABC News remains a Disney property but shuts down many of its foreign and domestic bureaus and gets most of its news from CNN. Or: Disney divests itself completely of ABC News and hands the whole news operation over to CNN. Either way, Wolzien concludes, “the marriage could easily turn out to be less than one made in heaven.”

Consumer activists are standing on tiptoe, shouting responses to the question: “Does anyone know any reason why this couple should not be joined in matrimony?” Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based watchdog group, expresses sentiments echoed by Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and other activists. The marriage would harm the public interest by reducing the number of news outlets, he claims, and besides that, Disney promised when it bought ABC -- and AOL vowed when it acquired Time Warner -- that the deals would add depth and diversity to Americans’ news diets. They’re reneging on those promises, says Chester, and the Justice Department and the FCC should block the merger.

Others object for less lofty reasons. “I think it’s an awful idea,” says Reese Schonfeld. “The problems can be worked out on paper but never in the real world.” Says Jack Meyers: The plan is “culturally inconceivable.”

Will CNN and ABC News actually hook up and thus permanently alter the balance of power in the cable wars? The answer: a firm “maybe.”

Hammering the Big Story

Cable news generates far more buzz than broadcast news, even though ABC, CBS, and NBC have most of the marquee names and a total audience that makes the cablenets look like scrawny new kids in the neighborhood. Rather-Brokaw-Jennings attract an average of 34.7 million unique viewers. That’s more than ten times the 3.2 million people watching CNN, FNC, and MSNBC -- plus CNN Headline News and CNBC -- from 6:30 to 7 p.m., according to figures compiled by CBS News. But cable news is edgier, noisier, more outrageous, more tendentious -- and it’s there all the time.

For three weeks in Oct., for example, the cablenets virtually ignored all other news except the search for the alleged snipers, John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. Nielsen figures showed that viewers immediately switched to a rival network whenever one of them bailed out of that story to give other news. Cable’s producers read the handwriting on the wall -- as they had many times in the past, with O.J., Monica, Chandra and others -- and remorselessly hammered the sniper story, giving short shrift to the coming Nov. elections. It paid off. Cable news won its largest average daily audiences of 2002; on Oct. 24, the day of the capture, 1.7 million people watched FNC, CNN attracted 1.3 million, and MSNBC got nearly 700,000, all record numbers.

CNN’s Isaacson admits that his network sometimes runs too hard with a story. Every time he’d tell his producers to scale back coverage of the snipers, however, another victim was shot. “Everybody in the newsroom would go nuts, and I’d say, ‘Okay, Okay, never mind.’” Cable news networks have learned to lie in wait for the next big story and then smother it. One such mega-story lifts all boats. In between, their ratings sag. Says Robert Lichter: “The problem for cable journalism is that, too often, all resources are funneled toward the one story that’s increasing ratings for everybody. The same journalists who claim to be proud of their high calling will shrug and say, ‘The Nielsens made us do it.’ There’s a hypocrisy there. Economics trumps quality.”

The next real test of the power balance in cable news looms, as war with Iraq becomes more likely. CNN, with far greater reach and resources, wants to own the story, as it did in the Persian Gulf in 1991 before FNC and MSNBC were born. That conflict made CNN a major player in global news for the first time. If, as CNN expects, viewers defect to it in droves during the action, the network could once again become the cable news leader by holding onto a percentage of them when the war ends. Eason Jordan, the executive who oversees CNN’s international newsgathering, is leading a full-court press in the effort to assure that the network will dominate coverage in a war on Iraq. “It’s a struggle every day to maintain our presence there,” he says. Hard-line factions within the Iraqi government view all journalists as spies. On one of Jordan’s dozen trips to Baghdad, a member of the so-called Revolutionary Command Council accused him not only of spying but of being the CIA station chief for Iraq. Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour, and Richard Roth are among CNN correspondents who’ve been banned from the country for coverage the Iraqis deem unfriendly.

“If the balloon goes up in Iraq,” says Garrick Utley, a CNN contributor, “it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top in the ratings.” The old-line warhorses at ABC, CBS, and NBC will be moving their heavy chariots into position, making it a six-horse race instead of three.

But cable news practitioners feel sure that they are the future and that the Rather-Brokaw-Jennings axis is increasingly an anachronism, despite the current numbers. “At this moment, we’re in the early stages of a big changeover,” says Jack Abernethy, Fox’s executive vice president. He’s wagering that cable, not broadcasting, will become the principal source of television news in peace as well as in war.

That sounds like a good bet -- if you plan to be around long enough to collect.

Neil Hickey is CJR's editor at large.
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