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The Political Science of #CNNfail

- October 27, 2009

“The New York Times”:http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/cnn-drops-to-last-place-among-cable-news-networks/?hp reports on CNN’s travails.

CNN, which invented the cable news network more than two decades ago, will hit a new competitive low with its prime-time programs in October, finishing fourth – and last – among the cable news networks with the audience that all the networks rely on for their advertising. The official monthly numbers will be finalized at 4 p.m. Monday and will include results from Friday. CNN executives conceded that will not change the competitive standing for the month. CNN will still be last in prime time.

That means CNN’s programs were behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but even its own sister network HLN (formerly Headline News.) That was the first time CNN had finished that poorly with its prime-time shows. The results demonstrate once more the apparent preference of viewers for opinion-oriented shows from the news networks in prime time. CNN has steered opinion hosts like Nancy Grace to HLN, while maintaining more news-oriented shows on CNN itself. When news events are not being intensely followed, CNN executives acknowledge, _viewers seem to be looking for partisan views more than objective coverage._ (my emphasis)

Not having followed this over time, I don’t want to make too much of it. However, it is very tempting indeed to analyze CNN’s troubles in the light of Markus Prior’s arguments in “Post-Broadcast Democracy”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0521675332?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0521675332. Briefly, Prior argues that cable has dramatically expanded viewers’ choices with two important consequences for media consumption. First – differences emerge between those who are interested in politics and those who are not. When there were three major broadcast networks, those who weren’t very interested in politics had little choice but to absorb some political knowledge indirectly as they waited for the sports scores. Now, they can just watch ESPN exclusively instead. Second, those who remain interested in consuming political media have a very different profile from the body of viewers before. Those who are not very interested in politics have a much greater tendency to be moderate. Those who are intensely interested in politics tend to be highly partisan. Now that the politically apathetic are dropping out of consuming political news, those who remain tend to be highly partisan – and much more interested in consuming Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow (not that I want to equate these two except in more than a generic way) than in consuming bland, centrist pabulum. This all suggests that CNN finds itself in a very tough spot. NB that I am not sure that this provides a complete explanation or a correct one (one _NYT_ story does not a dataset make), but it at the least seems _highly plausible_ to me (and hence, good enough for blogging).

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