It comes down to money.
When you ask what’s wrong with CNN, you can usefully turn the question on its head and ask ‘What’s right with Fox News?’ Of course, when people talk about Fox News, what they latch onto is the construction of a purely partisan channel that brilliantly recast talk radio for tv – and they’re right. But the equally, or maybe more important, innovation of Fox was economic.
Cable news operations – of which CNN was the only example for many years – are hideously costly beasts. To start, tv news is the most expensive kind of journalism; even in 2012 it much more often than not involves more than one person in a crew, especially at the national level. Because you need pictures, you have to be ‘on scene,’ which means you have to spend a lot of money on travel. You have to be ‘on’ 24/7, since your most basic promise is that you’ll be there if something big happens, which means you have to over staff by 2012 standards. And historically, the business had a wide and expensive middle class – from video editors to field producers to assignment desks.
Fox found a very effective way around a lot of that expense, one that is well disguised unless you’re in the business. Much of its content comes from local affiliates, which is then ‘fronted’ by a Fox reporter. So over the course of a day, a Trace Gallagher may report two or three different stories without ever leaving the studio. And if all there is, is a 30 second snippet of video (or none at all!) there’s a panel of ‘experts’ at the ready to comment on whatever the day’s outrage is. That panel is key: it means Fox can linger on one story for three minutes or more, and not run out of things to say. Is the commentary often partisan hackery, uninformed and wrong? Yep. Is it cheaper than filling the time with a report from some distant place like Boise or San Francisco or Augusta? Yep, and if the panel is good it can be more entertaining as well. More than anything else, the ‘video from affiliates plus panel discussion/interview’ format has gutted cable news, as Fox’s competitors have pretty much adopted the same strategy.
Finally, Fox specializes in physical beauty, especially among its women. Many of them are stunning, even by the standards of a business that obsesses about beauty, and are simply more involving to watch.
But, you say, it costs big money to keep Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the Fox A-list. True, but apparently not the kind of money it takes to fuel a much bigger news operation.
Combine the above with Fox’s ideology-driven programming and you have something remarkable: a ratings winner that is cheaper than a traditional news operation. Is it any wonder that Fox drives all the traditional networks, and especially CNN, crazy?