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Cable TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The challenge for cable news is that it has now reached adulthood.

Most cable systems in the country now carry all three of its news channels, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, so the field cannot grow merely from new distribution. The majority of Americans now cite cable over broadcast as the source they turn to for breaking news. More Americans also say they trust cable than they do commercial television news. The medium comes at us in airports, on our phones and PDAs, in the air. Its Web sites are among the Internet’s most popular, though not the most sophisticated. The cable news channel CNN outweighs any other television news organization in bureaus and resources. And cable news is enormously profitable, since, unlike broadcaster news, it gets substantial revenue from both subscriptions and advertising.

Yet building brand may look like the easy part from now on. In the last three years audience growth measured properly has slowed almost to a stop. And much of the recent growth, analysts say, has come from adding new cable systems that carry the channels, not from winning new viewers away from broadcast. That growth has gone almost as far as it can. CNN, which reached saturation distribution a few years ago, has been losing viewers since. From now on, experts say, cable channels will steal viewers mainly from each other, unless they can change their content to broaden their appeal.

For now, the content of cable news is measurably thinner, more opinionated, and less densely sourced than other forms of national news. Much of the appeal of cable lies in its convenience, and that may soon be challenged by the Web as it moves in the next year or two toward searchable video. The advantage of owning one of the three cable channels may diminish.

The question for cable news from now on may be how it defines news. The menu of topics that get substantive coverage on cable is fairly narrow. The channels, when examined closely, really focus on three or four major topics a day, and the level of repetition is enormous.

Much of the time, cable news is engaged in a different kind of news from much of the rest of the media – a journalism of assertion, where information is disseminated with only minimal attempts to check it out. None of the cable channels, for instance, offers what might be described as a signature evening newscast where people can go to authoritatively understand the events of the day. Each cable news network has something that most closely mirrors an evening newscast, but even these do not compare, our content analysis shows, to what is available on broadcast television.

The new leadership at MSNBC is already trying to contend with the problem of repetition in its quiet remaking of its own programming. The new leadership at CNN has gone on record as saying that it wants to get out of the shout-show business in favor of storytelling. At the close of 2004, it cancelled the iconic program that helped define the shout genre, Crossfire, and the new president of CNN even said he sided with the comedian Jon Stewart, who had gone on the show as a guest and criticized it harshly.

In a sense, the cable channels need to decide what comes first, programming or journalism. Are they going to be focused around something different from news – something that might be called nonfiction TV – airing the product that generates the highest audience at the lowest cost? Or do they believe, now that growing is going to get harder, that they need to take their journalism to a level they have not reached before to survive the leap to the next technology?