CNN essentially fired its CEO Chris Licht this week after giving him just over a year to try to turn the troubled cable news network around. But I wouldn’t be too quick to lay all the blame on Licht.
Cable News like its printed newspaper cousin is dying and it’s doing so for many of the same reasons. Technology has given media consumers more options. They have in some respects put the consumer “in control” of the information they receive. While that “control” is a myth to be addressed in another blog post, the point here the hard reality for cable news is it’s not as necessary as it once was.
Let’s start with newspapers and quickly get to cable news. The reason most people under the age of 50 never even got into the habit of reading a printed newspaper was because they knew they could get what they wanted from TV, radio and the Internet.
Now, most people of the same age have come to realize they don’t’ need cable news to stay on top of what’s happening in the world up to the minute. Cable news’s whole value proposition has been its ability to bring you the latest news up to and while it was happening. Newspapers couldn’t do it, and radio lacked pictures. For a long time, the Internet started to creep up on cable news, but it couldn’t supplant that “live” nature that gave the strongest cable news programs their ratings.
But social media, broadband technologies, and the arrival of the smart phone, made information consumers less reliant on the TV for information. They could find out what was happening when it was happening on just about any topic. And they didn’t need to rely on some cable news producer to curate it for them.
To counter this trend, cable news channels have long committed to opinion TV, and shifted away from breaking news. For some networks, this was a boon, but still nothing compared to the heyday of cable news when it could be the first to bring you battlefield video or the latest stock market news.
The real disrupter has been streaming technologies. Think Netflix, Hulu and others.
If you want to escape into a series, you can binge watch countless shows on video streaming platforms. But even if your preference is news, opinion or interview content, you only need your smart phone and an app like YouTube Premium or Spotify.
Spotify’s most popular podcast is presented in both audio and video form. It’s the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. For a sense of its size and reach, its top ten episodes alone have amassed over 250 million downloads. And Rogan has released over 1,750 episodes.
Forget the TV, forget the monthly cable bill. Today’s “cord cutters” want content they can watch, listen to, or read when they want to, where they want to, for nothing or next to nothing.
They will pay for a select number of apps or services that carry the shows or content they like best. But other than that, they’ll do without. And by doing without, I mean cable news.
Changing the Information Landscape
This has not come without a cost. There’s a good chance your 35-year-old brother-in-law has no idea his local taxes are about to go up because he never even looks at local news. That 42-year-old mother of three may be able to tell you the best sites for parenting information, and all about some of the latest home ideas from HGTV, but she may have missed the national story about legislation in Washington that could have a serious impact on her kids’ education.
That’s not to say, cable news was filling that void. For the most part in recent years, cable news networks decided philosophically and ideologically to take a political side and push that side mostly through opinion programming, not news. This has been their formula for ratings.
Lean strongly to the left or the right and play to a partisan base to build a core audience. Play to that audience 24/7, and in the process try to anger or irritate enough people on the other side who can’t help themselves but tune in to get angry. (Oddly enough, a lot of people do that).
Hire pundits people love or hate, but feel compelled to watch. And then make sure their clips are posted on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Make sure some of the most volatile ones get clicks and shares.
That’s how it’s been done. But now, we’re nearing the end of that road.
Cable companies are charging too much for so little. People don’t need TV for opinion, for news, for breaking news or even analysis. They don’t need big broadcast networks to create quality video content anymore. Anyone with a smart phone in the right place at the wrong time can capture sensational video that is shared in seconds. This is a total end-around the breaking news capabilities of cable news. People no longer seem to want reporters to make sense of it for them, or provide context. They will provide their own context, or unknowingly, let the platforms they use curate and provide context for them.
In the end, cable news is only becoming more expensive and less relevant. That’s not a good mix. And like newspapers, the heads of the networks have no clear options to turn things around.