Where is cable headed? Will it, like national broadcast news, become a universe of three networks largely indistinguishable in style and ethos? Or will some other structure emerge?
The old broadcast model seems fairly unlikely, given the direction in which Fox News has moved.
In the future, it may be that each cable channel will try to lay claim to a particular audience.
Some critics, such as James Fallows writing in the Atlantic Monthly, have suggested that this niche targeting will be ideological, with Fox News getting conservative viewers and CNN and MSNBC having to decide which would go liberal and which might choose another road.
But a closer look suggests that the targeting may be more subtle than that, and much more within the traditional norms of more modern, and less ideological, journalism.
Fox News may boast the largest numbers, at least in terms of traditional ratings, particularly with a prime time lineup that, like “The O’Reilly Factor,” is heavily styled toward talk radio on television. That audience may be in some ways more conservative, but in many other ways it may just be more populist. And the network will not abandon its marketing claim to fairness.
CNN may try to stake out the position that it is the choice of upscale news viewers who are uncomfortable with the angry, disenfranchised talk radio tone of Fox News, particularly in the evening. While the numbers may not be reflected in the ratings, CNN will stress its audience of business travelers in hotels and airports and even those in government capitals and newsrooms, where opinion shaping supposedly occurs.
MSNBC could try to position itself as the choice for younger viewers.
Indeed, some signs of these trends emerged in the months following the war in Iraq. With Fox News pulling ahead, it has been able to turn its larger audience into higher prices for its commercials. One report suggested that in the 2003 “upfront,” the yearly conference where channels sell their available commercial time to advertisers, Fox News may have gotten more ad revenue than CNN for the first time. CNN disputes that contention.1
CNN, meanwhile, has shifted toward arguing that its value lies in presenting higher-quality journalism. One executive used a watchmaking analogy in a July press conference, declaring, “I don’t think Rolex cares how many watches Timex sells… because it’s a quality product.”2 At the same time, CNN began airing a television campaign positioning itself as the “most trusted” news source while noting in trade publication advertisements that surveys of corporate managers and high-income consumers have found that CNN is one of their most popular news sources.3
And though MSNBC is trailing in the ratings and has had difficulty establishing a firm prime time schedule, the silver lining for the channel is that its average viewer is years younger than viewers of either Fox News or CNN, which enhances the channel’s appeal to advertisers.
For this shaking out to happen more clearly, however, the two more uncertain of the cable networks, CNN and MSNBC, would have to embark on programming that is more clearly committed to a strategy. Their recent history would suggest something more tentative and not single-minded.
MSNBC, for instance, at one point toyed with being a liberal alternative to Fox News when it hired Phil Donahue. But when Donahue’s numbers were below the celebrity-oriented programming of Connie Chung, his prime time rival on CNN, MSNBC surrendered and hired Michael Savage, a conservative radio talk show host, and Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman, to replace him.
Donahue’s ratings are actually higher than those of the hosts who replaced him. But Donahue may not have fit with the younger demographic that MSNBC once imagined it could attract during the day, or that it likes to trumpet as a core of its Web audience at MSNBC.com.
CNN, meanwhile, has been all over the place since the Time Warner merger with AOL, engaging in experimentation on the air and seemingly wanting to please many audiences. The shift in gears, for instance, between the celebrity, infotainment style of Connie Chung’s now-canceled program and the more contemplative style of Aaron Brown’s was quite a contrast.
Most likely, any niche targeting will require these networks to do two things they heretofore have found difficult.
First, they will have decide on a complete strategy and pursue it long and seriously enough to find out if it can be successful.
Second, they will have to resist the temptation to assimilate qualities that work for Fox News’s audience but would undermine their own strategy.
For MSNBC, that might mean really trying to pursue a younger audience by changing the tone, programming and substance of the network. For CNN, that might mean really going upscale by attempting more serious, in-depth reporting and story selection. Nothing in their records to date suggests they are ready for that to happen.
For CNN, they might even be challenged in their goal, if the BBC becomes more serious about launching an American service and gets enough clearances on cable channels to fill the more serious niche for news.
1. See Phyllis Furman, “CNN in big ad shakeout,” New York Daily News, June 25, 2003. Available at: http://www.nydailynews.com/business/v-pfriendly/story/95241p-86328c.html.
2. See David Bianculli, “CNN exec knocks Fox News,” New York Daily News, July 11, 2003. Available at: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/v-pfriendly/story/99688p-90188c.html.
3. The message to consumers, in other words, focuses on getting upscale viewers (who, according to this philosophy, are more concerned about credibility than downscale viewers) to choose CNN over its rivals. The message to advertisers is to choose CNN over its rivals because of its relatively wealthier audience. For example, see Cable TV Advertising Bureau (a trade group focused on advertisers and ad buyers), “CNN Profile,” which gave as one of the “Top Reasons to Advertise on CNN” the fact that it is “The #1 cable choice for reaching affluent American consumers for the sixth year in a row.” Available at: http://www.cabletvadbureau.com/02Profiles/CNNProf.htm.