The golden age of cable news, in my curmudgeonly view, stretched from 1980, when CNN was founded, to 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC came along, ending CNN’s monopoly.
It’s not that I like monopolies. Competition is good. But after the one became three, the race to the bottom was on, with all of them going with opinionated talk shows in prime time rather than covering the news. It almost doesn’t matter that CNN and MSNBC are liberal and relatively grounded in the truth while Fox is firmly a part of the conspiratorial extreme right. The point is that if it’s news you want rather than hot takes, you need to turn elsewhere.
But if the golden age has long since passed, the green age only started to fade recently. From 2015 through Jan. 6, 2021, all things Trump drove cable news ratings and revenues into the stratosphere. So what’s next for cable news in the post-Trump era? As I wrote in March, the future looks uncertain, with cable news ratings — and, in fact, audiences for all news organizations — down considerably. When the news is more or less normal and inspires something other than horror and perverse fascination, well, maybe “Beat Bobby Flay” looks like a better alternative.
Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article on the state of cable news by media reporter Joe Pompeo. It’s filled with interesting details and insights. What’s depressing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single executive who’s quoted, either on the record or anonymously, who talks about how moving the focus away from Trump might give them an opportunity to serve journalism and democracy better than they do now. It was all about ratings before. It still is.
Pompeo quotes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, on what the future is likely to hold:
It honestly feels like we’re back to the run-up to the 2016 election, like we’re going back in time five years to when cable news was really about old people. The volatility, the anger, the hatred that was spewed across cable news over the last few years, from both sides, clearly brought an audience. I would feel very comfortable saying I don’t think we’ll ever see sustained full-year ratings like we’ve just seen.
OK, so maybe that’s how cable news will serve democracy: by reaching smaller audiences.
At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a column headlined “Five Ways to De-Trumpify Your Life.” No. 4: Stop watching cable news. There are many superior sources of news and information. If there’s major breaking news taking place, sure, I’ll tune in to CNN. If Anderson Cooper is at the anchor desk, I might even stick around.
But the class of the television news universe is the “PBS NewsHour,” which has improved and toughened up considerably over the past few years. We record it every night; we rarely watch the whole thing, but we appreciate the intelligence and context, which you just can’t get elsewhere.
And yes, I’ll watch Rachel Maddow occasionally, too. She’s smart and well-informed, and her politics are pretty much the same as mine. But it’s entertainment as much as it is news, and what’s important isn’t always entertaining.
As described by Pompeo, it sounds like cable news is going to be the same as it ever was, only with fewer viewers. It’s a lost opportunity. But what did we expect?