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Al-Jazeera host: The solution to what’s wrong with American cable news

FOX News's Martha MacCallum with Michael Phelps Martha MacCallum
Getty Images/Rob Kim
Cable news networks are at a loss for how to cope with waning viewership.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to changing viewer tastes and habits. After 12 years at CNN, I needed to better understand why doing more of the obvious isn’t helping to grow an audience, even for long-standing brands. Cable news audiences are increasingly fickle, and fewer and fewer of them are tuning in.

The latest audience survey, conducted in February among 4,000 Americans aged 18-64, underscored cable TV segmentation trends unfolding for years. The national survey of news consumption habits (paid for by networks and channels, generally for use in ad sales) confirmed facts that many outside the television news industry might find surprising. For example, the average cable news viewer is in his or her sixties. It’s not hard to explain when you realize that the younger audience has grown up on greater choice, not just in terms of the number of hyper-specific channels available to them, but because they can time shift, watch video on demand, and get much of their news and analysis on their tablets or phones. Scheduled news, and current affairs programming is left to those who still like to get their information from an anchor or host they know on a channel they trust at a particular time, and on an actual TV. But that audience is shrinking and aging at the same time.

Younger audiences don’t make as clear a distinction about the source of the information. They need to trust it as much as an older viewer does but, to them, the distinction between mainstream and new, non-traditional news sources is fading.

What hasn’t changed is the idea of choosing a curator for your news and information. It’s why Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite reached the heights they did.  News and current affairs shows, like museums, have more inventory than they can possibly put on display in their allotted time, so they choose the things they think viewers will want most. Audiences sign up for the shows they think curate most closely to their own tastes.

The aforementioned study revealed that 105 million Americans identify themselves as “news consumers.” Certainly, there is a margin of error based on what Americans say they want to watch and what they actually watch. Nonetheless, nearly half of respondents complain of being “underserved” by existing TV news and information offerings. That represents about 49 million viewers—and a major opportunity for whomever can figure out how to give them what they want. So the survey went deeper, to gain a specific understanding of what the disaffected felt they weren’t getting.

They want less celebrity

And they’re not talking about the hosts. Chief among the complaints was the intense focus and time cable news and information shows spent on celebrity. What makes this interesting is that the 49 million “underserved” are an average 41 years old, considerably younger than the average cable news viewing audience. They like celebrities and entertainment news; they just don’t want their general news sources obsessing about them at the expense of other important and useful stories. A common complaint was that “news” gets bumped for content that could just as well reside on entertainment focused channels and websites. This refers to Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan, sure but a news story like Jodi Arias represents a subset of the frustration: the creation of celebrity out of trials. The disaffected felt it wasn’t necessary to see her trial play out on cable day to day.

They want less extremism

While more than 50% of the respondents thought what existed on cable TV was just fine, a large proportion lamented what they see as a growing focus on ideological rifts. In fact, they think that cable TV encourages those rifts by giving voice to ideological positions not most representative, but most outrageous. A common theme here is that the disaffected viewers, who were generally political moderates, did not see themselves or their views fairly represented in cable TV debates about important issues. They feel that extremism crowds out useful solutions-based discussions. Make no mistake: This is about more than just Fox News. Fox viewers tend to really like the channel, and don’t fall into the disaffected category. They are also the oldest of the old viewers and least likely to have complaints or want change.

They want a clear delineation between information and opinion

Perhaps the most serious concern, and the one most responsible for driving this disaffected audience from TV to the digital world, is the blurring of the line between news and commentary. While a majority of those surveyed enjoy anchors with passion and integrity, the study found many averse to hosts expressing overtly politically partisan opinions, particularly if the fact that they are commentators, rather than journalists, is not clearly signposted. Don’t mistake this for the 46% wanting dull or middle-of-the-road views; they crave both multiple mainstream sides to a story, and alternative viewpoints. But they feel they can’t get that breadth from moderators who’ve already decided which side is right. This group welcomes informed criticism of political positions, when they’re placed in context and supported by analysis. But unabashed partisanship has turned many of them away from cable news entirely.

They want more context, analysis and depth

Finally, the study found that the underserved viewer craves greater context and depth. They want cable news media to investigate and uncover, not just to tell them what happened and show them pictures of it. It’s something local news and broadcast programs have done far better than cable news has in recent years. The 46% stated clearly they want more of what feels like real journalism, rather than “infotainment.” They want real reporting; a more expensive form of journalism than booking a day’s worth of unpaid guests, but the research indicates that doing so may win the loyalty of these viewers.

So what if a channel gave these self-described underserved viewers want? Some do. There are great documentarians and investigative journalists out there, and fantastic shows like 60 Minutes still command impressive audiences. But much of what this audience craves has migrated away from mainstream TV news channels and to independent production houses. What’s replaced it is unsatisfying to the 49 million; it feels like empty calories. And as cable TV has failed them, they’ve changed how and where they get the constant flow of news and information they want, using apps or social networks. The study revealed that these consumers are likely to turn to cable news only for breaking stories, specials, or shows that need to be watched live, or when they air, so that the experience can be shared in real time with family and friends, or the next morning at work.

The task here is to reverse an inevitable trend. That the audience is aging is common, if not readily shared, knowledge in the cable industry.  How to turn a younger, smarter, hard-to-reclaim audience back from their phones and tablets to TV is the tough part. In fairness, this 46% of the news consuming audience would have migrated away from TV anyway, in part because they are used to customizing their own content, or having it crowd-curated through social media. It may be too late to try to convince them that their wants and needs can be met by cable, because they’ve learned to live without good old-fashioned TV news. It may not, however, be too late to woo them back to the so called “first screen” (TV), while they continue to use their “second screen” (tablet or phone), by integrating complementary and groundbreaking companion applications, or distinctive mobile-only products that don’t feel like low rent add-ons to the TV viewing experience.

The case is clear: the traditional audience isn’t growing, while the disaffected audience is. A whopping 49 million underserved viewers are asking for something we have the ability to deliver. Passing this opportunity up would be bad for business.

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