Like Balloon, Cable News Nets Also Adrift

Rash Report: Problem Isn't That They Cut Away; It's What They Cut Away From

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- Many media critics are howling over the cable news networks' continual coverage of the "Balloon Boy" drama yesterday, as the networks -- and their viewers -- got caught up in the live coverage.

CNN's 'Balloon Boy' Coverage: Less Fluffy?
CNN's 'Balloon Boy' Coverage: Less Fluffy? Credit: CNN Video
But given human nature, being riveted is to be expected, as CNN learned -- and taught -- when baby Jessica fell in the well a generation ago.

Instead, the real broadcast journalism problem isn't that the cable news networks broke away to go live, but rather what they broke away from.

Because the serious times the nation faces -- will Afghanistan be a failed state? Will California? What will bankrupt the country first: Health-care reform? Or health-care status quo? -- need expert examination. For the most part, however, what passes as broadcast journalism on cable news, particularly on prime time, isn't up to the task.

Instead, it's all too often focused on partisan politics instead of public policy: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann's hour-long "Special Commentary," which is a special name for a subjective screed. Fox News' Glenn Beck, crying (again), pining for "simpler times" (like maybe when news commentators didn't call the president "racist" on-air). HLN's (formerly CNN Headline News) new host Joy Behar -- fresh from the rigorous reporting on ABC's "The View" -- openly speculating about the sexual orientation of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

And all that was just this week.

What's not being covered is being noticed by the genre's creator as well, as CNN could have run a split screen of its "Balloon Boy" coverage juxtaposed against a report of Ted Turner telling Bloomberg News that he'd like to run CNN again and have a network that's "less fluffy news and more international news. Less talk, more news," echoing earlier comments that "CNN has gone a little more tabloid than I'd like to see it."

Less fluffy and more international may sound like eat-your-peas journalism in a cultural context of hot fudge sundaes, but it needn't be. Indeed, it can be entertaining, enlightening and enriching, in both senses of the word, as examples in three other media forms have shown.

The Economist, for instance, was No. 1 on 2008's Ad Age "A List" (please see Monday's Ad Age for the 2009 version), defying print media gravity with gravitas as its main selling point. It's influenced the entire category as well (see Newsweek's redesign). Along the way, total circulation was up 7.6%, with single-copy sales spiking 9.9%. Accordingly, ad pages grew 7.2%, despite the Great Recession.

NPR's had such a good run that some have begun to refer to it as National Prosperous Radio, as its wealth of compelling content has led to record listenership, which translates into financial support. Its two signature newscasts, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" have daily average quarter audience averages of more than 1.7 million and 1.8 million, respectively, according to NPR data from the most recent Arbitron report.

And on TV, it's PBS, not its cable rivals, that is the network of record, with the smartest people in the room (if not the world) giving their perspective nightly to the correspondents on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," which has averaged 1.1 million viewers a night over the last year. Ratings data is not yet available for "Frontline's" definitive documentary on Afghanistan, "Obama's War," but over the same time period PBS's signature series is averaging over 1.6 million viewers, according to PBS data.

These three examples, and many others, compare favorably to most cable news network audience averages. Over the last year, CNN has averaged just more than 1 million viewers in prime time, just ahead of MSNBC's 926,000. Over the last six weeks, however, far from campaign 2008, each average about 760,000 viewers in prime time.

Rash gridsEnlarge
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

Fox, of course, has done much better, as it has harnessed those opposing the president and his policies, holding a commanding lead of an average of over 2.2 million a night. Evidently amongst those viewers are some White House staffers, which have stumbled into a foolish feud with the network.

But for the most part, most Americans, either exhausted by the permanent campaign or looking to learn beyond it are not overly engaged in Fox's or MSNBC's competing echo chambers, with CNN positioned somewhere in-between. So many are reacting with ambivalence, which is what cable news networks should fear most.

And for those searching for more meaningful reporting and analysis, they often find the cable news networks relatively irrelevant. This is seen not only in the success of The Economist, NPR and PBS, but other deeper sources, like Fox News leader Rupert Murdoch's own Wall Street Journal, which this week surpassed USA Today to become the most widely read newspaper in America.

It's also seen from my role as an editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Indeed, it's been striking how few experts, from all professional, political and personal perspectives, reference the reporting and commentary on any of the cable news networks. Not that they're not journalism junkies. But nearly all cite other sources in augmenting their arguments.

Whether Ted Turner is the right man to operate CNN, he may have the right diagnosis. Which may partly explain the outpouring upon the recent deaths of Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt, as many mourned not just the journalists, but the journalism itself.

Beyond the moving memorials, perhaps the most proper way to honor them is by remembering what made them, and their work, so special, and to try to build, if not improve on it.

So it's OK for cable news networks to go live on a life and death situation like the "Balloon Boy." But like the craft itself, it's time to aspire higher, lest the networks become surprised, too, by a gentle descent with no one on board.

Friday: Play ball! Or at least watch it. Fox begins its coverage of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels a night after TBS's opening pitch of the NLCS between the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, who play the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Saturday: Forget network on Saturday night and instead choose between three relatively recent Oscar winners for Best Picture ("Slumdog Millionaire" on HBO, "Chicago" on VH1) or Best Actress (Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" on IFC).
Sunday: OK, it's safe to come back to broadcast. Especially since Fox's "The Simpsons" has its annual Halloween episode.

Organ transplant drama "Three Rivers" may need an audience transplant if it's going to survive, as it's finished fourth most Sundays so far this season.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun's Compass Media, Minneapolis. For more, see

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