The Downfall of Cable News and the NBA

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:34 pm May 24, 2011

One of the really interesting trends in cable news over the past several years has been the decline in quality of on-air product. It’s obvious to the viewer: plug in CNN from the mid-1990s and I guarantee you will see far more robust coverage of what’s going on in the world than you do today, and far more information crammed into a story.

Today, however, the primary focus of money in the business has shifted to the on-screen talent. You have a need to push as many good-looking people on screen as possible, with the leftovers going to the off-air people. This means fewer researchers, fewer producers, fewer camera crews, fewer animation and graphic designers, and most importantly, fewer actual journalists.

There is an entire class of behind the camera people now who shift between the major cable news shows – bookers, producers, etc. – who are underpaid, overworked, stressed out singles with wrecked lives and schedules that leave them unable to digest any information beyond the top-level stuff. The technology is getting cheaper (you can get a pro quality camera for under $1,000), but the manpower isn’t. Would you rather have another News Barbie or a team of researchers feeding her good information? Duh, #winning.

Television is inherently an entertainment medium. It reached its heyday as people discovered was more more immediate than newspapers and more visually interesting than radio. High quality doesn’t have to be boring – the BBC isn’t what it once was, but it’s still better – but the way people digest news now doesn’t allow for the larger cultural presence of the past. The semipro news junkie has moved on from TV almost entirely, so the quality has dipped – news organizations are left dropping naive journo majors into scenes and expecting them to digest the issue to the point where they don’t make an ass of themselves on camera before the clock winds down.

A perfect encapsulation of the problem this circumstance creates is found here. Not to pick on O’Leary, who’s not bad on Bloomberg, but reading this as an indication of the information she absorbs – how she gets it and what she gets – is a total indictment of the process of television journalism and research. There’s nothing special about these relationships or unique about these information sources. You probably follow or read all of them if you’re a news junkie. But admitting she turns to Twitter and a bevy of naive and often ill-informed online sources is not an encouraging sign.

This is in some ways worse than the cliquishness of DC-based journalism pockets: if random people who talk to you on Twitter are now the primary influencers of what you think and do (need to learn about oil? learn from Twitter!), with no filter or researcher to dig into their motivations or aims, there are no caveats, just signal.

You get situations like what happened in the recent GOP debate, where one of the Fox News blondes cited without caveat “a poll of Massachusetts residents” showing 84% approval of Romney’s health care policy in a question to Pawlenty. “Why isn’t that good enough for you?” she said.

Of course, I could’ve told her this poll was of 1. 600 Commonwealth Care participants, not residents/voters 2. the poll found 84% approval of their health insurance – keeping in mind that all of them are fully or partially subsidized by other taxpayers (it’s more surprising they could find 16% who didn’t like it – alert: people like free stuff!) and 3. the poll was paid for by the Massachusetts government agency itself. None of these facts get mentioned, and all it would’ve required is one additional Google search or phone call.

Of course, Fox got near-universal plaudits for having tough, well-researched questions in the debate. The sad thing is, by comparison to others, that’s probably true.

While not necessarily covering the same topic, Jonathan Last actually made a great point related to this, via email:

When it comes to compensation for talent, my guess is that TV is a lot like the NBA: The mid-line heads are ridiculously overpaid, kind of like third-rate power forwards getting $15M a year. But the real studs–like Kobe and Bron-Bron (and the Old School anchors like Brit Hume) are probably underpaid, even though they get crazy money. The real value of a Kobe is probably $50M a year.

The problem is that old-school anchors are a dying breed on TV. This is perhaps the dumbest programming decision in the history of the medium. Instead of grooming a new generation of studs to take over for Brokaw/Rather/Jennings, TV execs went the other way, looking to pretty boys.

When the Challenger explodes, you want an old, somber man with a voice like granite sitting in the Big Chair for ten hours straight. You don’t want some good-looking kid who reminds audiences of Ryan Seacrest.

Last’s comparison actually works on a lot of levels, and not just for the anchors. Glenn Beck is Gilbert Arenas (quirky! ingenious! dangerously insane!). Is Keith Olbermann Ron Artest or is Ron Artest Keith Olbermann? Wolf Blitzer’s gotta be Dirk. Brian Williams is Joe Johnson (good, but anonymous). Katie Couric is Emeka Okafor (Bad Idea Jeans). Anderson Cooper is Richard Jefferson. Jake Tapper is Steve Nash. John King is Shane Battier. And, of course, this means Bret Baier is Kevin Durant.

I won’t tell you who Rachel Maddow is.

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