Below is an amazing lede from a Paul Fahri story in yesterday’s The Washington Post about the coming collapse of cable news as a profitable business. The story is built around the CNN-Trump debacle, and puts forward a series of simple, straightforward and mind-boggling statistics that make clear that the end of the cable news era launched by OJ Simpson’s murder spree is at hand:
After a week of promotion and controversy, CNN staged a live town hall telecast with Donald Trump this month that was studded with the former president’s insults and falsehoods. It drew thunderous criticism — but strikingly few eyeballs.
The 70-minute broadcast attracted an audience of just 3.3 million viewers, about a third less than the number of people watching an episode of “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune” on ABC the same night.
When Donald Trump appeared on the debate stage in 2016 the ratings were enormous. No one could stop looking, and they didn’t for a long time — until they did. The music has stopped. The show is nearly over. It is old, boring and tedious. How do we know? CNN showed us that Trump is a bloated Nora Desmond yearning for one last lick of attention. The audience was paltry. It was utterly minuscule. It was dwarfed by “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune.”
While Chris Licht works the phones, spinning media reporters about his reckless decision to harvest an audience of Trump sycophants and broadcast a MAGA propaganda rally as a “public service,” the American public was busy unplugging their cable boxes. They are cutting the chord. Cable news is dying. Rapidly.
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There is a startling statistic from Fahri’s story:
As recently as 2016, when Trump was narrowly elected president, just over 70 percent of all households with a TV had cable or satellite TV subscriptions. Today the figure is just under 40 percent, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, a research firm. And it’s dropping fast. During the first quarter of 2023, another 2.3 million customers (or 7 percent of the total) cut the cord to traditional cable — the fastest cancel-my-subscription pace ever recorded, according to MoffettNathanson, another research firm. The company estimates the number of homes receiving TV via cable is now about the same as it was in 1992, when the industry was still on the rise.
Think about that. The number of American households with cable television has fallen to 1992 levels. The media ecosystem that cashed in on Trump in 2016 has profoundly changed. When Trump consumed the cable airwaves like an orange Godzilla, fully 70 percent of the American people were plugged into the cable box. Today it is 40 per cent. Where is it going? Down. All the way to the final resting place of DVD, LaserDisc, 8-track tapes, Blue Ray and the steam engine.
Unlike the vinyl resurgence, there will be no second act for cable news. Fahri explains why.
The leading cable networks remain enormously profitable, largely because of the economic dynamics of the larger cable industry. The financial foundation of cable news isn’t advertising but the license fees that cable-system operators pay for the right to carry them. Regardless of whether a cable subscriber watches Fox, CNN or MSNBC, their monthly cable payments help fund those companies. Last year, the licensing fees collected by the six biggest cable news networks (Fox, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox Business and HLN) amounted to just over $4 billion, according to S&P. Advertisers added another $2.6 billion. But the day could soon come when an exodus of cable subscribers leaves cable operators unable to afford the hefty license fees that those news programmers now command.
This is an economic reality of the cable news business that many people don’t understand. It also explains why so many advertiser boycotts against Fox News have had such little impact. The cable companies make their money on the “license” or “carriage” fees. Typically, Fox costs more than any other channel for the cable carrier to carry or provide. Simply put, Fox costs more than Animal Planet. Every single person who has cable pays this Fox tax, including people who despise Fox, and never watch it. It is far more damaging to Fox News to cut the cable chord than boycott their advertisers. The first is a death sentence. The second is an inconvenience.
Donald Trump is a grave threat to the American republic because he will likely be the GOP/MAGA nominee. He is a pathological liar who incited an insurrection in an attempt to overthrow the lawfully-elected federal government. He disdains America’s ideas, ideals and democracy, while occupying a singular status as a moral, ethical and sexual degenerate. Yet, he no longer appears to be entertainment. The American people are tuning him out for the same reason they have tuned much of cable news out — it is stale, pedantic, boring and performative. This is why Ted Turner always said the “news is the star.” The news never gets boring.
When Chris Licht assumed his responsibilities at CNN he seemed to understand that the single issue of his tenure would be restoring trust to a shattered brand that had become integral to the Trump-centric rage industrial complex. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Licht said the following:
I think we have to restore trust. It’s that simple. You can talk to a lot of different people as to why that has eroded, but as opposed to looking back I will say one of our missions is to restore our reputation as the most trusted name in news. We certainly have research that shows that [trust] has eroded.
Here is where it ended. Christiane Amanpour rebuked CNN’s decision to host a town hall event with Donald Trump by saying, during an address to Columbia University journalism students, that she had “a very robust exchange of views” with Chris Licht on the matter:
We know Trump and his tendencies — everyone does. He just seizes the stage and dominates.
I can only hope that your trust in us might have been shaken but not shattered. That you believe we can survive and rebuild that trust.
Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s, who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism on to their pages unless his foul likes, his witch-hunts and his rants reached the basic evidence level required in a court of law.
Some of the very best and even most fiery, compelling interviews are, in fact, taped, and they are edited, not to change the context or the content or the truth or the intent, but to edit for filibuster and a stream of disinformation. So maybe less is more. Maybe live is not always right.
Yet, hardly any of it matters because the structure of the underlying system is collapsing at an astonishing pace. The “take it or leave it” era of cable programming is ending. Each offering will be dependent on the connection of an audience to an individual platform and the personalities on it.
Trust will be the coin of the realm, and that relationship will be elemental as content is delivered to membership communities where shared values, expectations and engagement are aligned. News, analysis and information are about to be profoundly disaggregated. Information will flow bottom up as much as it does top down. Consumers will be able to cherry pick an assortment of information from written and video sources that they prefer, while discarding all of the extraneous content that doesn’t interest them. The top-heavy dinosaurs of the old era will not be able to compete. There is no segment of Americans who want to watch anything on television where more than 75% of the people on-air appear from the out-of-touch epicenter of American power and corruption — Washington DC.
Niche audiences that demand factual presentations, astute analysis and excellent content — where reality and truth are discernible from delusion and the lie — will help kill off this era in which the truth and the lie have come to stand evenly in the public square. Cable news would likely have died of cynicism in old age, but “video killed the radio star,” so to speak.
The show must go on as they say. What will come next? What will the news look like? It will look very different from what we have known. That is a good thing. It is a particularly good thing for our broken democracy, which has been assaulted by our broken media for too long.
As I read this essay, I kept thinking about my cable bill. I have stopped watching TV. I don't even watch the local channels. Back in the day, the local news was followed by national news. Today's cable companies often have speculation parading as news, if for no other reason than the 24 hour news cycle has not changed. I don't think the 24 hour news cycle has made us more informed, given how many people voted for tRump thinking he was a successful businessman. Our family is going to have a discussion about how we can get programming we want to watch without that programming that we don't. I have no interest at all in adding to the bottom line of Fox
A sobering analysis, but the fact remains vast segments of Americans just can't be bothered to watch, listen to, and certainly not read the news. For years news on television wasn't profitable, but there was a commitment by broadcasters to subsidize news departments with the profits from popular programing. That's gone, too. We have cast aside the broad perspective provided by a physical newspaper, where you read things you wouldn't otherwise because you saw them when you turned the page. It was valuable, akin to a daily liberal arts education.