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Cable TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Cable TV news is maturing. The medium that changed journalism at the end of the last century is no longer a new technology, with all the growth, experimentation, controversy and sense of zeitgeist that entails.

The audience for the main three cable news channels has not only stopped growing, in 2006 it began to decline. Even Fox News, though it still dominated the competition, saw its first drop, after six years of meteoric growth.

Financially, the sector remains robust. And 2006 was a particularly big year for Fox News. It began to sign new license fee agreements with cable carriers, successfully tripling its rates, which put it among the top five channels in price. With final numbers not yet in, analysts predicted that Fox News would surpass CNN in profitability. Analysts expected revenues and profits to grow at the other channels, too.

The inevitable question, one seen by other media over the years, is whether cable now has to manage profits as the audience base declines. The other question is how much cable will invest those rising profits in the Internet and mobile technology, which are not part of its legacy business of programming television.

The answer will depend on the owners, of course. There was no changing of the guard or major sale in 2006, but there were more subtle changes. MSNBC, with Microsoft no longer involved and NBC firmly in charge, carried out a restructuring program, a management shakeup, and a new push toward politics and opinion. At Fox News’s parent, News Corp., Rupert Murdoch settled a simmering dispute over control, and reflected on 10 years of cable news success. CNN saw Ted Turner, already gone from operational involvement, formally leave its parent company’s board.

The impact on the newsroom of all this is harder to divine, in part because the networks like it that way. Fox News is building, and expenses generally are rising — though not as much as profits — but it is less clear how much of the rise is going into reporters, producers and newsgathering muscle, and how much elsewhere. The clearest sense one has is that generally the cable news channels, including CNN Headline News, are moving more toward personalities, often opinionated ones, to win audiences. The most strident voices, such as Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, are among the biggest successes in winning viewers, as is CNN’s new crusader, Lou Dobbs. How much those individual shows affect a channel’s overall audience is harder to gauge. Their growth in 2006 was substantial, particularly among 25-to-54-year-olds, but those gains were not enough to stanch the overall declines.

The shifts toward even edgier opinion are also probably a response to another change. Cable is beginning to lose its claim as the primary destination for what was once its main appeal: news on demand. That is something the Internet can now provide more efficiently. As cable channels lose their monopoly over breaking news, they will likely continue to push their identities toward something else. That is also a reason that the cable channels are putting even more effort into their Web sites. And there, Fox News is trailing, not leading.

The public appears to be becoming more skeptical of cable. While trust remains high relative to other media sectors, it generally is declining. The audience is also fragmenting further by ideology, with MSNBC’s audience the most liberal.

In short, with age, cable news is showing signs of beginning to suffer some of the same problems other media have. If Act I of cable was the immediacy of CNN, and Act II was the rise of Fox News, we may be embarking on new plot twist.