Tom Levenson is stopping by on Thursday. We will talk about his book, Newton and the Counterfeiter, and also about science writing and science in journalism. More on that shortly. But first, I want to look at one of his recent posts, on Comcast, KO, and the future of the cable “news” shows.
I had something like nine reactions to the post, but I will limit myself to just a couple here.
The first point Tom makes is not a new one, but it still surprises people:
As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million. In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so. Not bad — but not exactly dominant either. Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of. His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings. Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.
Now these are big numbers, especially in a world where a blog that has 100,000 page views in a day, never mind in an hour, is doing very, very well. (Balloon Juice, today, is at 83,000 average views per day, while Eschaton is at 46,000.) But they are nothing that will keep you on the air in prime time on the broadcast networks, and represents a tiny percentage of the US population.
I read the post Sunday morning, so immediately I thought about the Sunday Gasbags–Culture of Truth and Cliff Schecter were on, and I knew they would be talking about the shows at least as much as the week’s news.
So I wondered about their reach.
Here are the ratings for December 19, 2010
Face the Nation: 2.7 million
This Week: 1.9 million
Fox: 1.3 million
Meet The Press: 3.4 million
In his book Breaking the News, James Fallows described how the Sunday Gasbag programs set the weekly agenda for Beltway reporters. Even though the reach is quite meager, the shows are, in many ways, broadcast for the consumption for a group number in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands in the Beltway, and most specifically at the publishers, editors, producers and directors of the newspapers, magazines, and, now, websites of the Beltway media.
Likewise, one reason the cable “news” shows exhibit more influence than you’d expect from their low ratings numbers is that the Beltway pays attention. As Atrios remarks, when you walk into the office of an elected official in Washington, the (ubiquitous) televisions are invariably tuned to cable news, unless there is something happening at that moment on the floor, when they show CSPAN. So while not very many people watch the programs, elected officials, and, more important, their staffers and lobbyists do. In this way the narrative gets set.
We’re at a tipping point, says Tom (my hackneyed phrase, not his):
I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page. But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production. The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that. But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***
Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy. My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app. In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it. The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen. No more. More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.
I certainly hope so. I have felt increasingly as if we are engaged in samizdat projects that operate, weirdly, in a public sphere. We are using blogs, youtube videos, low-powered radio and other means to communicate that we need to circumvent the official media story line. I am not quite as sanguine as Tom in the belief that these distributional mechanisms will be both kept open, and found, by a population even as large as reached by the Sunday morning shows. There are significant institutional pressures to prevent an open airing of widely held views, like, for example, ending imperialist wars of choice that do not affect US national security concerns.
Chicago Dyke in Eschaton comments puts it this way:
i don’t mean to be a downer, Jay, but even if a hundred million americans watched Cenk or Brian Safi or whatever via web TV, it wouldn’t really have an impact on the political leadership. sure, political TV and video shapes the public discourse. sure, things can go viral and change political careers (macaca, etc). but when it comes down to “will the Senate pass a bill that eliminates the possibility of lawsuits against BP in less than 48hrs after the gulf disaster?” the answer will remain yes, and the reason why is $$. citizens united. obama expanding the war in af’stan. none of that shit “makes any sense” on TV or in any other media, but they all happened. because video culture is a distraction for the Little People; it helps maintain the illusion that they matter, and participate in a functioning democracy, when in fact what we live in is an oligarchy of a very small number of very wealthy people, who are at this point from what i can tell headed by banksters and mercenary warmongers.
Of course, what we are doing here–at Virtually Speaking, in the videos we have been making of short excerpts from programs–and in our blog posts and commentary– is working to a future where alternative media is viable and disseminated widely enough to have an influence on policy making.
But it still feels like samizdat to me. Way too often.