Half-Way Strategies That Appeal To No One

The hottest show on cable news right now is Glenn Beck’s program, which debuted on Fox News a few months ago. If you haven’t seen Stephen Colbert’s send-up of him, check this out:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Beck is a hysteric, but he’s getting huge ratings. He’s actually beating every other cable news show except the long-established Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. This after only a few months on the air:


CNN has slipped into third place behind Fox and MSNBC.

Lessons? The obvious: Whackadoodle sells. Outrageousness sells. Dogma sells. Entertainment sells. But I wonder if there’s something else. It’s been a long time since cable news has been about real news. It’s become a kind of sprawling news-o-tainment “reality” show in which the goal is to stir people up rather than inform them.

This isn’t an argument against such shows. If people want to watch them, fine. Rather, I want to focus on CNN. CNN was the first cable news channel and it started out focusing on traditional news. Then Fox News launched and had success with its news-o-tainment format. CNN responded by trying to throw in a bit more pizzazz, Not, unfortunately for CNN, as entertainingly as Fox, and its ratings have been slipping ever since.

So CNN is a mess. Almost unwatchable as a purely news channel (with Wolf Blitzer’s constant hyping of “the best political team on television”) and a steady diet of inanities and blow-dried dumb anchors, it also doesn’t deliver much as entertainment. It can’t match Fox at stirring up the outrage.

CNN’s predicament reminds me of that of many local newspapers. Newspapers perceived that the serious stuff didn’t have a big enough audience so they tried to pop-culture-up and make the stories, ideas and language simple. Fox works because it blatantly hammers out its agendas while CNN’s agendas are watered down out of some vestigial sense of traditional journalism. CNN doesn’t play Fox’s game very well – instead it half-plays the Fox game and consequently doesn’t do either news or news-o-tainment very well. There’s a parallel for newspapers. Rather than attract a hipper younger audience, they alienated their core readers and failed to get the kids as well.

In our increasingly nichefying world, using mass-culture strategies to get bigger audiences works against you. A proliferation of sources means that people can be pickier to get exactly what they want, and general bland multi-purpose content has less and less appeal. A lesson for anyone competing for an audience these days.

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  1. says

    Somewhat ironically, the case can be made that News Corp, Fox’s parent, is replaying CNN’s error with the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch’s misguided attempt to turn WSJ into a general interest publication that competes with the NY Times (WSJ Sports??) is a really dubious strategy. WSJ has historically enjoyed an extremely entrenched spot in a very valuable niche. If I were the Financial Times I’d see this as an amazing opportunity to move in and grab a lot of market share.

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