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Cable News' First 100 Days

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Today, of course, news organizations like this one are in overkill mode dissecting President Obama’s first 100 days in office. The broadcast and news networks will all be covering tonight’s Presidential press conference (except Fox network, which will mark Tim Roth’s first 100 days in Lie to Me). While we’re at it, though, we might ask: how has the new administration affected cable news in its first 100 days? 

On the one hand, you could say not at all. The basic dynamic and voice of the three major news networks—Fox News editorially on the right, MSNBC on the left, CNN trying to find an audience for nonpartisan hosts—is the same, as are the forces driving the business. (For instance, that CNN rises at times of major breaking news, but flounders to keep viewers at other times.) 

But in a way, the fact that CNN, in particular, is trying so hard to make the 100-days-marker an event is itself a sign of how the Obama era has affected cable news. Basically, CNN is trying to make this arbitrary calendar marker into something that looks like an election night. Why? Because last year, where there were actual election nights, CNN was cleaning up. Now, CNN not only remains behind Fox, but in April ratings numbers that just came out, it is also—as it was in the first quarter of the year—behind MSNBC in primetime (among the 25-to-54-year-old viewers who determine cable-news ad rates). Oh, also: it was behind its little-sibling channel, HLN. In primetime’s key demo, CNN is now fourth. Fourth

Again, as I said, this is a dynamic we’ve seen repeatedly over the past decade: CNN has fallen back in slow news periods and zig-zagged on strategies to deal with it—more news! more opinion! more news, but with “attitude”! But relatively speaking, CNN is in its biggest primetime hole yet. 

Fine, but what does this have to do with Obama? Maybe not a lot, directly. But Obama’s electoral victory, and his current dominance of politics, seems to be exacerbating the existing cable-news trends. There may be procedural fights in Washington, but in essence, Obama and the Democrats control everything. Everything. While there have been flare-ups about this compromise here and that one there, essentially Obama has gotten his agenda through as he’s wanted. (Compare that with, say, the Clinton administration’s health care experience in 1994.) 

What does that mean for cable news? It means that, side issues aside, the big-picture question of Will Obama be able to do what he wants? has been relatively suspense-less. Therefore, the question driving 24-hour news instead becomes Should Obama be able to do what he wants? And the “should” question necessarily gives the advantage to the networks with the more popular opinion hosts, as opposed to the straight-news coverage that still draws people to CNN during elections or disasters, when they’re looking for raw information. 

Of course, this trend in cable news is part of a larger polarization of American political discussion that cable news alone is not responsible for. But you only need to look at the networks, and the particular hosts, whose fortunes have improved since Obama was sworn in. Glenn Beck, for instance, came on the air at Fox the same week Obama moved in to the White House. Beck’s a talented broadcaster, but he seriously owes Obama something like a 10% agent’s fee. An electoral minority is still a mighty cable audience, especially if it’s wound up from its marginalization in Washington. 

Obama’s political might right now, in other words, doesn’t mean there’s no news—far from it. But it means that there’s the kind of news that benefits Fox and MSNBC’s political hosts. And with Arlen Specter’s defection to the Dems, that dominance looks like it will be even stronger in the near-term future. Which means that, if anyone should be more peeved than Michael Steele about Specter’s move, it should be CNN. The next 100 days may not be too kind to it either.