The State of Cable News is…Mature?

And other findings from PEJ's annual report

“Cable television news showed further signs of maturity in 2007.”

I almost couldn’t get past that, the opening sentence of the “Cable TV” section of the recently-released annual “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. (Particularly as MSNBC, my background noise, plays and replays - eleven times so far today! - above chyrons like “The Hardball Boogie,” Chris Matthews’ stiff-limbed, lip-biting, hands-on Dance with DeGeneres.)

But I read on (oh, that kind of “maturity”) and pulled out a few interesting—and in some case worrisome—findings, among many, to highlight here.

Starting with this non-cable-specific tidbit from the report’s introduction:

More effort keeps shifting toward processing information and away from original reporting. Fewer people are being asked to do more, and the era of reporters operating in multimedia has finally arrived.

And how’s that do-more-with-less “multimedia era” working out for reporters so far? Candy Crowley, CNN’s senior political correspondent, offered some insight on that point recently, as reported by the The St. Augustine (Florida) Record:

There are so many avenues where we put our journalism radio, TV, podcasts and blogs (that) what suffers is reporting. You almost don’t have time to figure (a story) out before you’re on the air with it. What we’re actually missing is substance or context.

But if Crowley thinks she has it bad, among the three major cable channels CNN, per PEJ’s report, devotes the most time to the sorts of news segments that, presumably, lend themselves to more substance and context, the “taped edited packages to tell stories.” MSNBC, per the study, “is basically a network that relies on live, extemporaneous, unedited information, especially during its anchor interviews.” And Fox falls somewhere in between. Relatedly, CNN spends the most on newsgathering: $273 million in 2006 to Fox’s $266 million and MSNBC’s $145 million the same year (MSNBC, of course, relies heavily on NBC’s newsgathering).

On cable airwaves last year, the “No. 1 topic” (hours devoted) differed depending on where your remote took you. “On MSNBC it was politics. On Fox, it was crime. On CNN, it was U.S. foreign policy.” Further:

In simplest terms, MSNBC focused itself around Washington, the campaign and political scandal…Fox was more oriented to crime, celebrity and the media than its rivals…CNN tended by degrees to devote somewhat more time across a range of topics…

In other words, MSNBC gets to keep its tagline, “The Place for Politics” (perhaps with a footnote along the lines of “…And When We Say Politics, We Mean Dirt and Gaffes) but back to the drawing board for the other cable networks! (For the sake of honesty in advertising, for example, Fox’s “Fair & Balanced” might become something like “Felonies & Britney.”)

Back to that “maturity:” Cable news did see audience growth in 2007 (“after sharp declines the year before”) but rather than occurring, as one might expect, around major news events, the PEJ found that “much of this growth occurred in prime time, or the evening programming, which is now dominated by talk show hosts who spent much of the year focused on the 2008 presidential campaign.” Put another way: “Evidence suggests programming built around a cast of hosts, often but not always the edgiest of cable personalities, were at the core of the [audience] growth.”

In other words: brace yourself for a bumper crop of “edgy personalities” on cable this year.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.