TV Cable News Is All Theater

Fox Newscaster Bill O'Reilly

Fox Newscaster Bill O'Reilly

It’s no surprise to anyone that CNN is the least watched station among cable networks during prime time. Most viewers today are tuning in to opinion based programs, such as Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” where the news is slanted along political party lines.

The New York Times, along with scores of other news sources, reported today that three of CNN’s four programs airing between 7 and 11 p.m., finished last this month behind Fox, MSNBC and HLN (formerly Headline News). Even CNN’s coveted “Anderson Cooper 360” fell behind in the 10 p.m. slot for the first time, following Greta Van Susteren, Keith Olbermann and Nancy Grace, respectively.

CNN however still ranks first in campaign news, according to the Pew Research Center, with 25% of viewers naming the network as their main source of information, followed by Fox News Channel (21%) and MSNBC (10%).

CNN cites lack of news for the drop in prime time watchers, coupled by an ongoing feud between MSNBC and Fox, who are feeding off each other’s broadcasts.  Controversy and conflict are what make headlines.   Without them, news can be dull and boring.  Viewers are more likely to pay attention to a story filled with much hullabaloo, than a straight reporting of the facts.

Cable television has become more focused on its entertainment value, than its news reporting.  Today’s newscasts are riddled with commentary and judgment, and in some cases, the “news” actually becomes the “news.”  This is not saying cable networks perform poorly when reporting the news.  It’s quite the opposite; they are giving the viewing public what it wants: theater.  

Do the cable networks have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately?  They sure do.  But it’s not news that is being reported, it is opinion.  That’s something different.  Countless media outlets, blogs and podcasts, all are competing to report the news.  Cable opinion shows have carved a niche for themselves within this highly competitive, 24-hour news cycle. These shows not only appeal to a particular demographic, they offer a unique perspective, good, bad or indifferent.  This type of programming is reminiscent of the 1953 song from the MGM musical, The Band Wagon, “That’s Entertainment!”

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