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Cable News Wars: Inside the Unprecedented Battle for Viewers in Trump Era

Variety logo Variety 6/13/2017 Brian Steinberg
© Provided by Variety

In a different era, Erin Burnett might call this a pretty crazy week. In the era of President Donald Trump, it’s routine.

Before returning stateside last week to anchor her 7 p.m. “Outfront” program on CNN, Burnett spent the weekend doing research on the ground in the Middle East. On Tuesday, she wrapped an important interview with Qatar’s U.S. ambassador with just 90 seconds to go before the start of her show — only to find she had to juggle multiple breaking news items about critical national issues, including former FBI director James Comey’s coming testimony before Congress. The frenzy of activity seems to be working: Burnett’s viewership in the demo that advertisers covet for news, adults 25-54, more than doubled in May.

“This is the new normal,” says Burnett in an interview at CNN’s New York headquarters after the June 6 edition of “Outfront.” “There has been no exception to that rule in weeks.”

Burnett’s new normal is something that in the past would have been distinctly abnormal for the nation’s cable-news networks and the big media conglomerates that run them. After a presidential election, so the rule goes, audiences dissipate. According to the Pew Research Center, viewership for the primetime schedules of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC increased 55% to 4.8 million viewers in 2016, while daytime cable viewership grew 36%. In the first half of this year, viewing levels have not shrunk.

Alex Fine for Variety

Due to the controversies swirling around the Trump administration, many nights feel as momentous for the future of the country as Election Night. In this fraught atmosphere, it’s no surprise that combined viewing of the Big Three cable-news networks — Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC — is up 33% through the first week of June compared with the same period last year, according to data from Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser.

In this endless cycle of breaking political headlines, television news is facing its biggest moment of opportunity since Fox News Channel and MSNBC came on the scene 21 years ago. The competitive fervor among the Big Three to turn these added eyeballs into regular viewers is further stoked by the fact that the longtime market leader — Fox News — is vulnerable after a year of turmoil on both sides of the camera.

Staffs are being pushed to the brink. On many days, Burnett’s executive producer, Susie Xu, logs on to the cabler’s 9 a.m. conference call to pitch stories, knowing full well most of them will have to be scrapped for the latest twist in the Capitol or the White House. On some days, Burnett rushes into her anchor chair for an hour so stuffed with breaking news that CNN cancels or limits the commercials that might let her take a breath between stories.

Burnett’s experience is hardly unique. TV news veterans cite the combination of a country with deep political and cultural divisions and the hyperactive and hyperbolic environment created by social media in addition to the precedent- and protocol-busting White House.

“We’ve never seen a news cycle like this,” says Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor. “We’ve never seen an administration get this kind of reaction from the country. Add to that breaking news of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, and you get a pretty frenetic pace.” Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS This Morning” co-anchor, covered five presidential elections and three presidential administrations during her years in Washington for CBS and NBC News. “The intensity is unrivaled,” she says of the current atmosphere.

“We’ve never seen an administration get this kind of reaction from the country.”

Bret Baier, Fox News

Baier was walking from the makeup room to his Washington D.C. studio to anchor his regular 6 p.m. hour, “Special Report With Bret Baier,” on May 9 when the news broke that President Trump had fired Comey. The previously planned segments for that night’s edition were scrapped in seconds. Baier did the hour commercial free, rolling through bulletins and hastily arranged guests as details of the dismissal flowed into his earpiece. Baier turned it over to the New York anchor desk at 7 p.m. but wound up anchoring another two hours without commercials later that night.

The pervasiveness of headlines and commentary online and on social media platforms has unquestionably stepped up the tempo for cable news. “We are just working at a different pace now,” Baier says. “It’s not just this administration but our society. People are now used to absorbing things in a nanosecond, and they expect their 24-hour cable news to be as fast as they are.”

In the traditional Nielsen ratings race among the Big Three cable-news networks, there’s much more than bragging rights at stake. The competition among CNN, MSNBC and Fox News isn’t so much about stealing viewers from one another as it is about them trying to bring new viewers into their tent, via linear or digital platforms. Those audiences fuel advertising rates and affiliate fees and help build new digital businesses, including podcasts and e-newsletters.

Fox News built its enormously profitable enterprise on the back of being the most-watched news channel. After more than 15 years at the top, it commands nearly twice the affiliate fees of CNN and more than triple those of MSNBC (see chart).

The opportunity at hand in this polarized moment is akin to a close election where a candidate’s fate is determined by wooing uncommitted voters who are predisposed to a particular worldview. “There are ideological audiences that are either interested in watching or uninterested in watching — that’s a lot of what you see flowing through the cable-news numbers,” says CBS News president David Rhodes, who spent more than a decade at Fox News.

Shepard Smith and Fox News (far left) still lead the cable pack, but CNN and MSNBC are gaining, with rising ratings for such shows as Erin Burnett and “Outfront” (top right) and Lawrence O’Donnell’s “The Last Word.”

Burnett: JOHN NOWAK; O’Donnell: Nathan Congleton

Already, the industry has seen signs of this shifting terrain — most notably in a surge by MSNBC, driven by the triple-digit gains for primetime mainstay “The Rachel Maddow Show.” The veteran MSNBC host has been adept at channeling the angst of the so-called resistance to Trump in liberal and progressive circles.

CNN, long known for a nonpartisan take on daily events, has found itself at times bickering with the White House as anchors like Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper take a more aggressive approach to fact-checking and questioning Trump’s agenda.

Fox News, meanwhile, is in reconstruction mode following the tumultuous departures of founder Roger Ailes, marquee host Bill O’Reilly and its other big star, Megyn Kelly. (Ailes, who died in May, had been ousted last year in the wake of sexual-harassment allegations. O’Reilly was forced out in April due to similar allegations and settlements of lawsuits over harassment. Kelly decamped in January for NBC News.) The primetime lineup that dominated cable-news ratings had to be revamped on the fly in late April when O’Reilly was ushered off the air.

“Of course we knew there would be some softening with the loss of Bill O’Reilly,” says Jay Wallace, Fox News’ president of news. “The man was the tentpole of our primetime lineup. We knew there would be a little bit of a difference there. But overall, Fox News fans are committed to us. They watch us longer than any other network [per session]. They like our brand of storytelling and the way we report news.”

Fox News has retained its status as the nation’s most-watched cable-news network in total viewers. But MSNBC, which built its brand on presenting a progressive view of the day’s headlines, has put new emphasis on NBC News reporting, and that effort has helped spur an audience surge. In May, MSNBC’s weekday prime schedule, which contains a network’s most-watched shows and is the priciest for advertisers, captured the largest number of viewers between 25 and 54 — the first time the network has beaten Fox News and CNN in the demo since September 2000. Whether that victory is sustainable remains to be seen. On the night of the recent terrorist attacks in London, more viewers overall and in the demo tuned in to Fox News.

The ratings growth for news programming also comes at a time when the largest broadcast and cable networks are struggling with ratings erosion for primetime entertainment programming. Media buyers, who control millions of dollars in advertising spending, recognize these days that it’s hard to beat real-world politics for intrigue and suspense.

Alex Fine for Variety

“It’s dramatic. It’s as close to reality television as you can get. And people like that stuff,” says Lisa Herdman, a senior vice president who oversees TV ad buying for RPA, an ad agency that works with Honda, among other clients. “I’m confident in saying that if this world continues the way that it is, the news viewers will stay.”

Digital operations have become a second front of sorts in the battle to reach viewers. CNN, under the direction of president Jeff Zucker, began pouring resources into digital operations a few years ago. “CNN is so much bigger than just the linear television network,” Zucker says. “Our digital efforts and podcasts and newsletters are just a huge part of what we do. The level of engagement on [Trump] is just huge, and so, as a result, it’s a great time to try new things.” Even Fareed Zakaria has a newsletter these days.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes boasted to Variety earlier this year that CNN revenue from digital operations would top $100 million in 2017. Zucker says CNN is on track to produce more than $1 billion in profit for the year.

Fox News is eager to reach viewers on new screens, says Wallace. “We know we really need to be better and faster and work the mobile space as well. There’s a lot of awareness of this,” he says. “We have been changing a lot of the workflows over the past 10 months. We’ve broken down a lot of internal walls between Fox News, Fox Business, radio and digital. We’re trying to tie them all together.”

Fox News recently unveiled plans for an expansive workspace at its midtown New York headquarters that, when completed next year, is designed to facilitate multiplatform coverage.

The broadcasters are trying new concepts as well, such as CBS News’ streaming outlet, CBSN, which makes the network’s reporting available even when “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News” are not on the air. “The presence of 1,000 cameras everywhere in people’s phones and ubiquitous social media has shortened the news cycle and made the reaction to news events more intense,” says CBS News president Rhodes. “It’s super-charged everything.”

No one has forgotten about traditional shows — with good reason. Audience growth is everywhere. At MSNBC, overall viewership for the network’s noontime “Andrea Mitchell Reports” soared 58% year over year in the first quarter of 2017. Fox News Channel’s “Your World With Neil Cavuto,” a network mainstay, notched a 26% increase in audience for the same period.  Even a Saturday-evening repeat of CNN’s “Smerconish,” with host Michael Smerconish, soared in the first three months of the year, according to Nielsen — by a whopping 51%.

At CNN, viewers who may have grown accustomed to seeing documentaries and travelogues break up multiple hours of Cooper and Don Lemon are now getting used to town halls featuring politicians scrapping over the issues with each other and with average citizens, as well as programs led by new faces including Van Jones and David Axelrod.

There’s no reason not to serve viewers more of the topic that interests them, suggests Zucker. “2016 was the best year in the history of cable news, and 2017 is going to be even better,” he says. “There is no evidence that the interest in [Trump] is waning in any way.”

Fox News recently launched a show led by Steve Hilton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, that examines the rise of populism. During the week, viewers have traded the O’Reilly days for a lineup anchored by Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, the panelists of “The Five” and Sean Hannity.

But MSNBC’s schedule may be the most striking. Yes, Maddow looms large, as do Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes. But Greta van Susteren, the former Fox News veteran, holds forth at 6 p.m. these days, and Nicolle Wallace, a longtime Republican operative, just launched a new show in the late afternoon opposite CNN’s Tapper and Fox News’ Cavuto.

In the past, such a rightward lean might have been anathema to the cabler, but in an era when the stakes are high, says Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, the network can’t just air progressive thought leaders. “You can take on topics that in the past, maybe you wouldn’t go there,” he says. “Morning Joe” recently featured Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who has often pushed back on the dangers of climate change. “It was respectful, thoughtful and challenging,” Griffin says. “Pruitt stood in there and was great. I think you came out of it a much more informed person. Overall, there’s a sense of getting as many different people and voices and angles on [air], because there’s so much going on now.”

Not too long ago, Lawrence O’Donnell would start gathering the first thoughts for his MSNBC program, “The Last Word,” in the late afternoon. He typically writes his own copy. These days, he says, “my routines have collapsed. There are no routines anymore.”

The onslaught of breaking news — much of it pulsing on smartphone screens just a few hours before primetime starts — has shifted long-held work habits. It used to be that O’Donnell’s first tough decision was determining what to discuss during the hour-long show. “That question is no longer up to you,” O’Donnell says. “It is delivered by the bombshell of the day.” He typically spent five hours writing scripts. Now, depending on the news, he says he might prepare one in 45 minutes.

“Yes, I do feel more scrutiny, but I have felt it for a while, and I do think it’s important that all of us feel it.”

Jake Tapper, CNN

Some staffers lament the effect the intense glut of headlines has on enterprise features. Burnett says her staff has segments in the can about topics like immigration and healthcare but often has to put them on hold. On some days, she says, “we’re getting ready to put them on, and then all of a sudden, at 5:45, you get a call and it’s ‘Guys, sorry, but that story is not getting on tonight,’” she says.

The sheer adrenaline of delivering the latest developments makes up for it, several reporters say. Chris Matthews, the veteran MSNBC journalist and political observer, says he loves the feel of teeing up information for his audience, no matter whether it comes from NBC News, The New York Times or The Washington Post. “People are getting home. They are hearing about it. They want the full story,” says the host of MSNBC’s 7 p.m. “Hardball.” The feeling, he says, “is a great rush.”

CBS News president Rhodes calls the environment energizing for people who love the thrill of the hunt. “Nobody comes to work hoping for a slow news day,” he says.

The surge in viewership also means many anchors are under constant scrutiny. Vitriolic criticism of news coverage is the rule, now that every viewer has a smartphone-megaphone to broadcast a beef. Amid cries of media bias and fake news, anchors and reporters are in a fishbowl where every word and facial expression is dissected via GIFs. And they aren’t immune to the anger and tension that has permeated the country; CNN’s Cooper and Reza Aslan have in recent weeks issued apologies for using crude language (a tweet in Aslan’s case) in coverage of Trump-related stories. (CNN canceled Aslan’s weekly series, “Believer,” on June 9 after one season.)

“Yes, I do feel more scrutiny, but I have felt it for a while, and I do think it’s important that all of us feel it,” says Tapper, who has gained notice for his unvarnished Washington analysis. “There’s even more impetus for us, all of us in the media — left, right, center, partisan, nonpartisan — to rise to the moment, to really try to be fair and objective.” Tapper, who hosts a weekday show, “The Lead,” as well as the Sunday program “State of the Union,” says he can handle his six-day-a-week workload for the near future. “It’s sustainable in the short term,” he says. “I’m 48 now. Ask me when I’m 55.”

The workload is grueling for production teams and crewmembers as well as anchors. “We are probably burning out some of our people in the production ranks quicker than we did in the past,” Fox News’ Wallace says. “If we need to go live until two in the morning, we do.”

The notion of taking a summer vacation right now seems unrealistic for most newsies. “We’ve always been on call for big events, but now you’re watching the phone a lot closer on days when you’re off,” Baier says. “We’re one tweet away from a big news event.”

With so much at stake, no one in news wants to take a break. “I guess it’s like you’re running a marathon,” Burnett says, “at a sprint’s pace.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that CNN would generate $1 billion in digital revenue this year. 

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