theater of the absurd

I have refrained from commenting on CNN’s increasingly bizarre obsession with the missing Malaysian airliner, mostly because I don’t have anything useful to contribute.

However, I was surprised when I took a look at the current state of cable news ratings. Obviously, CNN has a narrow ledge to stand on, sandwiched between the two more ideological channels. CNN does best when there’s a breaking story; it has the most resources, and a 30 year reputation for handling the big stuff well, even if that reputation has taken some hits in recent years – see the Boston bombing and the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. Most of all, breaking news usually doesn’t have an obvious ideological component.

So it makes sense that CNN would run hard at the story of the missing airliner, try to pick off Fox and MSNBC viewers, and from what I recall, it got some numbers early on. But we’re about 40 days out now, and well past the story’s sell-by date. Tonight, for instance, we have a ferry overturned in South Korea and scores of children (likely hundreds) dead; new, dangerous developments from Ukraine, including a weird threat to Jews living in the country;  a few other worthy things.

But of course the 7 pm CNN anchor’s show (this would be the show that specializes in asking odd straw man questions as set-ups for various segments; the questions are almost never actually addressed) led with Malaysia, which amounted to “another day of looking,” followed by more panel discussion and – having abandoned the aircraft simulator that poor Martin Savidge was held prisoner in for a month – a new, underwater vessel wired for pictures and sound to, ummm, demonstrate what it would sorta, kinda be like to be looking for the missing airliner deep underwater. Except the search that’s going on is being done by remote drone, which is not terribly exciting.

Anyway, the point: CNN has apparently gotten somewhere by remaking itself as the plane crash channel. Take a look at Wednesday’s ratings, courtesy of TV by the Numbers. For the day, Fox dominates both overall and in the critical 25-54 demographic, but CNN edges MSNBC in 25-54. During prime time, CNN is third overall and third 25-54, but in terms of 25-54,  it’s close. CNN does well at 5 and 8 pm in 25-54, and well at 10 and 11. (“Well” is a relative term; again, Fox dominates the numbers, so “well” means ” in terms of runner up status.”)

This is a classic case of going all in with what you have; CNN has no ideological base to draw on, so it has no ready made, easy options for stoking outrage/ratings. The network’s attempt to declare everyone suspect (the Anderson Cooper promotion line that seems to be going away: “Keeping Them Honest”) didn’t get any traction. Give Zucker credit; he has focused the network on the big story, and then backs and fills with specials and series that are purpose-built to compete with programs on the History Channel and A & E.

However, the downside is substantial – my guess is CNN is not getting cruising altitude doing what it’s doing and struggles for its numbers. That means CNN has to keep stoking its version of the outrage machine, in this case, the gross overuse of the term “breaking news.” And that brings with it the age-old problem of exhausting your audience. To put it another way, the next time there’s big news happening, will you trust CNN as much, knowing they’re playing a tightly focused game for eyeballs?


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