|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
For all the time it has to fill, roughly 18 hours of original programming each day, cable news has become in many ways a niche medium that offers viewers narrow formula rather than a broad-based agenda of the events of the day.
That formula in 2007 was a combination of controversial opinion, a dose of tabloid-tinged crime and celebrity, edgy personalities, and, during the daytime, a focus on the immediate.
In emphasis what is defined as significant amid this formula varies significantly, too, by the channel one watches, the time of day and to some extent the program. More than any on other medium we have studied, the definition of news differs depending on the outlet.
There are also two distinct parts of the cable day. Daytime is more focused on crime and disaster. Nighttime increasingly is more about topics that spark controversy and suit the particular audience that tunes in to each channel.
These are some of the findings of our study of cable news, an analysis of 17 shows, 885 hours of cable news over the course of the year, a total of 22,823 stories.
Breadth of Topics
The cable news agenda is measurably different and narrower than other media platforms. With its focus in prime time on talk, it tends toward the political and the controversial, with a clear focus on crime and celebrity mixed in as well.
As an example, cable news spent a smaller percentage of its time than did network evening news covering the broad range of domestic issues, from the environment, to transportation, health care, Social Security, welfare, education, economics, race, gender and more. It also spent half as much of its airtime on the economy and business. And it was among the lowest of media sectors studied in the percentage of time it devoted to foreign affairs that did not involve the U.S. directly.
The medium devoted twice as much of its time to politics and the wide-open campaign for president as network nightly news or cable’s new chief rival for breaking news, news online Web sites, and five times as much on celebrity and entertainment. It also spent twice the percentage of its time on crime.
Collectively, the broad range of domestic issues including the environment, education, transportation, development, religion, domestic terrorism, health care, race — everything but immigration — made up 13% of the time on cable (compared with 26% on network evening news). The three topics of celebrity, crime and disasters, in contrast, accounted for 24% of cable’s time.
To put that into perspective, if one were to have watched five hours of cable news, one would have seen about:
On the other hand, one would have seen:
Topics on Cable News vs. Other Outlets
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.
When it came to specific stories, cable news showed a tendency to take the biggest stories of the year and make them bigger, particularly stories that lent themselves to argument, predictions and political divide. Hence the campaign, a long-running story or conversation, filled 50% more time on cable news than evening network news or than in the newshole for media over all. So did the debate over what U.S. policy on Iraq should be. But events on the ground in Iraq, a story that required people in place engaged in reporting, filled less than half the percentage on the cable programs studied than on network nightly news or the media studied over all, and third of the space readers would have seen on cable’s newest rival, online.
Thus while the list of the top five big stories is similar on cable with other media sectors, the nature of the way cable is structured — around talk rather than reporting (see format below) — alters the nature of the content one sees.
Top Stories: Cable News vs. Other Media
The News Agenda – Daytime vs. Nighttime
Time of day also influenced the news agenda a viewer was likely to see in 2007. The range of stories and topics one saw in the daytime was different than at night, when cable’s well-known talk hosts and personalities fill prime time. During the day, younger hosts, their names not built into the program titles, their experience less clear, sit in the anchor chairs. This is a group of usually physically attractive and often young, on-air “talent.” At night, cable’s better known hosts and personalities fill the time, focusing on topics they particularly care about or fit the formula of their show.
This changes the content. The No. 1 topic in daytime hours studied was crime, the only sector studied where that was true in PEJ’s content studies, where it filled fully 20% of the time studied, nearly double the number at night. Accidents and disasters similarly filled 11% of time studied, again more than double prime time. Celebrity entertainment was larger in daytime than at night by nearly half (7% vs. 4%). Politics and the campaign for president, in contrast, was a smaller story (8% vs. 20% at night).
Government, which does much of its business during the day and may even try to time events to get on live cable TV, was also smaller percentage of time during day period studied than it was at night (filling less than 5% of time versus just under 8% at night).
Topics on Daytime Cable vs. Nighttime Cable
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.
Differences among Cable Channels
One distinguishing factor of cable is how different the definition of news is on each of the three major channels. This is the only medium studied where we see such contrasts.
By illustration, the No. 1 topic on each of the three channels was different, the only sector where we found this disparity among rival outlets. On MSNBC it was the politics. On Fox, it was crime. On CNN, it was U.S. foreign policy.
In simplest terms, MSNBC focused itself around Washington, the campaign and political scandal, often with an eye sharply critical of the Bush administration, to good ratings effect.
Fox was more oriented to crime, celebrity and the media than its rivals.
CNN tended by degrees to devote somewhat more time across a range of topics, and to rely more on taped edited packages to tell stories, although not nearly to the degree found on network nightly news.
MSNBC, which bills itself as the Place the Politics, in 2007 devoted 25% more of the airtime studied to Washington and political topics than did CNN and 46% more than Fox. Those topics filled fully 63% of the time studied on MSNBC (versus 50% on CNN and 43% on Fox).1
On Fox, the four topics of crime, celebrity, disasters and media topics alone filled 34% of the airtimes studied. That is 46% more than on CNN and MSNBC. Yet political topics, particularly those involving the Bush administration, were aired far less.
The war in Iraq, by example, filled 10% of the airtime studied on Fox in 2007, compared with 16% on CNN and 18% on MSNBC.
Similarly, the four top political scandals during the year — the firings of the U.S. Attorneys, the CIA leak prosecution of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr., the sexual-advance case against Idaho Senator Larry Craig, and the acknowledgment by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana that he had been involved with an escort service under police investigation for prostitution in the District of Columbia — filled 3% of the airtime studied on Fox. They filled 4% on CNN and 8% on MSNBC.
The cable channels do have some similarities in format. All lean now in prime time toward marquee names as hosts. And with talk as their primary form of news delivery, they tend toward topics that lend themselves to argument along with an emphasis on breaking news of a visual nature.
But the subjects being discussed or propagated by these hosts and their guests — in other words the news agenda — differs more on cable among the three channels than in any other medium we have studied.
Topics on Cable News by Channel
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.
The Differences Among Different Programs
Consider the differences among what some regard as the evening newscasts on the three channels. Identifying a signature newscast on cable is not a simple matter. Fox offers two — Shepard Smith’s and Brit Hume’s. MSNBC features Keith Olbermann. In 2007, CNN moved a second airing of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room into something more akin to this spot by pushing it into the evening.
On Olbermann’s program, the No. 1 topic was U.S. foreign policy (26% of time studied), followed by the activities of the government (23%), with a particular focus on the war, totaling half his airtime.
On Smith’s program, the No. 1 topic is crime (24%) followed by accidents and disasters (12%). Government and foreign policy made up 13%.
On CNN’s newscast, the war in Iraq and foreign policy (30%) and the campaign and politics (21%) came in No. 1 and 2.
So what is the news agenda of cable news? The answer is it depends on the channel, and to some extent on the host of the program.
One other feature of cable news now is that even on programs that bill themselves as general interest news programs, the news agenda varies significantly by program, even on the same network.
Shepard Smith vs. Brit Hume
On Fox, compare the two shows that come closest to being general evening newscasts: Fox Report with Shepard Smith and Special Report with Brit Hume.
They differ as markedly in their rundown of the day’s news as any programs on cable.
Smith’s newscast is a mix of crime, disasters, accidents, with a marked dose of celebrity and entertainment. The war, the rest of the world, the campaign and the government are a smaller portion of the news than in the media over all.
Hume’s program, in contrast, is as focused on politics and government.
“Welcome to Washington. I’m Brit Hume. The federal deficit is down, down more than predictions, down to its lowest level in half a decade. And while his critics continue to find a cloud around that silver lining, President Bush says the best is yet to come,” Hume began his program on October 11.
On Smith’s program, the lead story that night was about the arrest of a 14-year-old in Pennsylvania who allegedly was thinking about shooting up a high school.
Consider the numbers. On Smith’s program, the No. 1 topic is crime (24% of time studied, the highest of any show studied), followed by disasters (12%); and a miscellany of oddball, weather, traffic and accident stories (9%). Celebrity/entertainment is the No. 6 topic (6%).Together these four subjects alone make up 52% of the time studied.
On Hume’s show, in contrast, these are minor topics — 9% of time studied.
Hume’s program is more focused on Washington, in a way that resembles the news one might have seen on the CBS newscasts when Walter Cronkite was the anchorman from 1962 to 1981. The No. 1 topic for Hume in 2007 was U.S. foreign policy (32%), followed by politics (20%), government (10%), and then non-U.S.- involved foreign affairs (8%). Together, these four topics made up 70% of the time studied.
Add the next five topics, all of which intersect with politics — immigration, domestic terrorism, economics, health and medicine, and the environment — and to total rises to 81% of the airtime.
O’Reilly vs. Hannity & Colmes
Fox’s two leading talk programs in the evening also have different news agendas from one another, and are distinctly different from Fox’s news programs.
Those programs, run by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity & Alan Colmes, spend a good deal of time talking about the media, for instance, small topics on the news shows. They also spend more time on celebrity entertainment than even Shepard Smith. Government is also a topic that gets less attention from the talkers than from the newscasts.
The differences between the two talk shows may be more subtle, but they are still evident. O’Reilly’s news agenda suggests his interests are in some ways more cultural, while Hannity & Colmes’ are more traditionally political.
For O’Reilly, for instance, crime is the No. 1 topic (16% of the time studied vs. 8% on Hannity & Colmes). Immigration, a subject that crosses culture and politics, is also a bigger issue (11% of the programs studied), more than twice as big as for Hannity & Colmes (4%).
Hannity, by contrast, spent more time on politics, by far his No. 1 topic by a factor of three over any other subject (36% vs. 12% on the O’Reilly Factor).
After the politics, domestic and foreign, Hannity and Colmes were somewhat interested in more emotional stories that, while not dominant, cumulatively change the character between the two programs. They spent substantially more time on celebrity entertainment than O’Reilly (11% vs. 8%), and more than twice as much on accidents and disasters (5% vs. 2%). And in the hours studied, the program did no coverage of economics and business.
So is there a Fox formula to the news? Not strictly. There are clearly differences in Fox’s news agenda as opposed to its rivals, which to a significant degree appear to reflect the interests of Fox’s more conservative audience demographics (see Audience).
But there are differences, too, by host, and the programs in Fox’s now steady (and to some extent perhaps aging lineup) that offer viewers some variety.
Those subtle differences now also exist in degrees on the other news channels as well.
CNN’s prime time lineup in 2007 shifted slightly with the departure of Paula Zahn in August but three general news programs were a foundation of its lineup for the year. (The study does not include Larry King’s interview program, which usually has a single subject each night and tilts toward celebrity interviews.)
Those three news programs, which vary from one another distinctly, are Anderson Cooper 360, Lou Dobbs Tonight and the Situation Room with former Washington beat reporter Wolf Blitzer.
Cooper’s program is more cultural, while Blitzer’s, and even more so Dobbs’, are more political.
Consider the numbers: Five topics on Dobbs’ program — U.S. foreign policy, immigration, politics, government and the military situation at home — make up 70% of the hours studied. (They filled 40% on Cooper’s.)
Dobbs’ No. 1 story of the year far beyond any other was immigration, accounting for nearly a quarter of all the airtime studied (22%).
And if anyone thought Dobbs separates his commentary from his reporting, the video offers a different impression.
“Tonight crushing defeat for President Bush and the Senate’s Democratic leadership on amnesty, a glorious victory for the American people,” Dobbs began June 28, the night the immigration bill failed.
Cooper’s program spends more time on stories with a strong emotional or cultural appeal — crime (his No. 1 topic), accidents and disasters, celebrity entertainment, health and lifestyle fill 37% of the programs studied. Those subjects, by contrast, make up just 15% of the Situation Room and 13% on Dobbs.
Often, Cooper is on the scene of these stories, getting involved:
On February 2, news broke about tornadoes that hit Florida and caused a lot of destruction. Cooper was there.
“You were talking about strength and courage, well, the people here are exhibiting a lot of that, strength and courage, tonight,” he opened his show, speaking to Larry King, something Cooper does to try to keep more of King’s audience. “Nothing really prepares you for this, Larry, not to see it, certainly not to live it. They get hurricanes in this part of the country, of course. Yet, even houses built to take a Category 3 or 4 storm could not stand up to what happened here overnight.”
His No. 1 story of the year was the campaign in total (13%), but in any given week, if one wanted to hear about O. J. Simpson, the aftermath of Katrina, Don Imus, or the trapped miners on CNN, Cooper was the most likely place to find them.
On MSNBC, even as it tries to position itself around the topic of politics, there are unmistakable gradations.
In prime time, Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews were so particularly focused on the game of politics that no other programs studied came close. But MSNBC’s top-rated show, Keith Olbermann, is actually more focused on governing and the activities of the Bush administration.
Olbermann spent nearly a quarter of the time studied on government (23%), nearly triple the time on Carlson (8%) and double Matthews (12%). (In March 2008, MSNBC removed Carlson from its lineup and replaced him with David Gregory, an NBC News reporter. Gregory began a new show called Race for the White House.)
Much of Olbermann’s emphasis on government has to do with Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq. Nearly four in ten of 125 Olbermann programs studied over the year led with the war, more than triple the next most popular lead story, the firing of the U.S. attorneys.
On two-thirds of the nights studied, Olbermann opened with a story that offered the opportunity for him to look askance at the Bush administration over its antiterrorism tactics or other disputed issues.
“Good evening,” he began on May 15. “The etymology is unclear, but the phrase is politically apt, especially tonight. We’re checking for tire treads on the just-resigned deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, after he got rolled under the wheels by his erstwhile boss, Alberto Gonzales,” and then without starting a new sentence he turned to another White House controversy involving the World Bank, saying, “the White House today indicating it might be willing to give Paul Wolfowitz a glimpse of pavement and the oncoming vehicle.”
In contrast, Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews were focused on the race for president and politics rather than the conduct of Bush Administration. Carlson spent 47% of time studied on politics and the election and Matthews 44%. (Olbermann spent 16%.)
The Carlson and Matthews shows stood out in cable for the similarity of their focus. Both opened their programs nearly four nights out of ten studied about the presidential campaign and two nights with the Iraq war debate.
But the character of their shows differed from the personalities of the two hosts. Carlson offered what he called a libertarian critique while Matthews is a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. But the more striking differences were stylistic. Matthews is famous for asking questions and then interrupting his guests to offer his own answers. Picking one night at random, November 26, the transcripts show that while Carlson interrupted his guests three times, Matthews did it 13.
If there was a consistent strain on MSNBC, it was the war and U.S. foreign policy, something about which their liberal and conservative critics tended to express objections to. When he was still on in the evening, Joe Scarborough, a Republican, spent 31% of his time on the subject, Olbermann 26%, but other shows were not far behind (Hardball spent 20% of the time on the subject and Carlson 19%).
Live Reporting Lives On
Much of the character of cable, and of each channel, is derived from how the time is structured, that is, the format of the programs.
In general, cable news continues to be dominated by the culture of live, extemporaneous journalism, but that differs substantially by network.
Overall, of the 885 hours studied, 496 (56% of the time) were unedited and unrehearsed, with in interviews (usually by anchors) or live stand-ups by correspondents. That is even higher than we identified in past years. The medium, as we have noted in earlier years, “has all but abandoned what was once the primary element of television news, the written and edited story.”
About half as much time, 30%, on the cable programs studied was made up of correspondent packages. Compare that to network nightly newscasts, in which 82% of time is taken up by such packages, or even morning news, where half of the time studied made up of edited packages.
But the notion that cable takes you live to watch events for yourself is in many ways overstated. In all, only 3% of the time covered live events such as press conferences. (About 1% was spent on banter between anchors, weather and other chat.) This compares with 6% in live events the last time we examined the structure of cable news, in 2004.
Story Format on Cable News vs. Network News
The emphasis on live thus cannot be explained by the desire to go continually for substantial periods of time to show viewers live events. Rather, the nature of time on cable news appears to be more on creating the impression that things are being reported as they happen. Producing programs in a live, unedited and essentially extemporaneous model is also cheaper.
And it means that a central figure in cable news, particularly during the daytime, is the “booker,” the often-young staffer who finds guests who can go on air for interviews or panels.
Despite the emphasis on live, the amount of updating, our earlier studies have found, is minimal, and the emphasis on live cable news has resulted in walking away from the capacity to review, verify, edit, choose words carefully and match those words to pictures.
Audiences are even less likely to find verified, edited journalism at certain times of the day. Daytime cable is more than half as likely to have edited packages. Just 14% of the daytime programming studied was made up of such produced packages. Instead, fully 70% was made up of live, extemporaneous programming.
In the evening, roughly a third (34%) of the time is spent on packaged pieces. This is down from what we found in 2004 when 42% of time was made up of stories that had been edited and taped.
Differences in Format by News Channel
Yet the some of most substantial differences in the structure of cable news exist in the distinctions among the three channels.
MSNBC, perhaps because it has fewer staffers and correspondents of its own and instead “rents” them from NBC (see News Investment), relies substantially more on unscripted, live unedited news delivery. Fully 80% of the time on MSNBC is “live” and unscripted, by far the highest of the three cable channels. It is 44% on CNN, and 59% on Fox.
Most of that time studied on MSNBC involved people doing interviews (70%). Compare that number to 28% on CNN and 45% on Fox.
CNN and Fox, on the other hand, are the near reverse of each other when it comes to interviews versus packaged reports.
CNN, the first all-news cable channel in the country, sticks more to the network news style of packaged pieces. Close to half (45%) of its time is spent on packaged pieces. While this is still about half the number found on the traditional broadcast network evening news programs, it is by far the highest among the cable channels. And those packages on CNN tend also to be longer (an average of 2.9 minutes on the programs studied, versus 2.4 on its rivals).
There are differences between the daytime and evening programming here. Packages were fewer during daytime than at night (24% vs. 50%) and live reporter stand-ups were heavier (31% vs. 10%).
Anderson Cooper’s program is particularly inclined to packages, on a wide range of topics, from visiting the Congo, to Nicaragua, to the lives of Marines in Iraq, to an autistic woman who posts video on YouTube.
On Fox, slightly more than a quarter of time studied was made up of edited packages (28%). And again there were more packages at night (31%) than during the day (15%) and more stand-ups in daytime (21% vs. 8%).
On MSNBC, at least on the general interest news programs studied, the edited news story has all but disappeared, making up slightly less than 10% of the time. Here, too, there were differences in daytime vs. night. In daytime, MSNBC relies more on reporters to do live stand-ups (18% vs. 2% in the evening) and even less on packages (3% vs. 12%). But in both parts of the day, live delivery still fills up 80% of the time.
(At 10 p.m. Eastern, MSNBC does air taped reported programming, a variety of documentaries under different names, including MSNBC Investigates and MSNBC Reports. These documentaries are often produced through the Dateline unit at NBC and are both original and previously aired segments.)
Story Format on Cable News Channels