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Cable TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

While many sectors of the mainstream news media struggled, in 2008 cable shined.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all gained viewers, were projected to see record profits, and expected to increase spending on newsgathering and bureaus around the world. CNN even launched a wire service to compete with the Associated Press.

In the last two months of the year, however, after the hoopla of the presidential election ended, ratings plummeted, and questions arose about how much of the gain would last.

Why did cable news outperform virtually every other news organizations? The answer begins (and perhaps ends) with the presidential election. All three channels focused more of their time on the race than virtually any other news operations in the country, especially at night. The talk show format that dominated cable’s prime time became even more ideologically polarized, Fox News hewing right, MSNBC left, and CNN coming closer in tone to the media elsewhere. And cable’s politically active audiences tuned in as never before.

The formula was not without controversy, especially at MSNBC. When the network allowed talk show hosts to anchor primary night and convention coverage, even some people at its parent NBC News complained, worrying about damaging the NBC News brand. At almost the same time, however, the channel found new ratings success in liberal pundit Rachel Maddow.

While the formula paid off, by the end of the year it also left as many questions as it had answered.

In early 2009, audiences were up in the first two months, suggesting the channels might retain some, but not most, of the viewership gained during the election year.