Sunday, March 07, 2010

Musings About Anderson Cooper 360's Ratings & Why, Despite Excellent Reporters, I Trust The Daily Show More Than CNN

Hi everyone. It's been a while since I've fulfilled the "other newsy musings" part of this blog's mission statement (up top, people!). With all the AC360-related chatter in the headlines lately, I figured this was as good a time as any. As someone who has been doing reviews of this show for about three and a half years (I know, I can't quite believe it either), I was reminded of something last week when I took a few days off to simply watch, but not blog: I'm not a regular viewer. Sure, I'm regular in a literal sense in that I watch almost every night, but is my experience regular? Not even close.

When I'm watching the show, I'm focused on accurately getting down facts, obtaining a full enough understanding of the information that I'll be able to regurgitate it in my own voice, zeroing in on criticisms to point out, and yes, finding things that will (hopefully) add some amusement to my post. In other words, I've got stuff to do. I think this is why it's taken a while for me to really understand one of show's biggest problems now: it's boring.

Shortly after one broadcast last week that I watched without blogging, I found I wasn't able to remember anything specific about what had been covered. During another show, one of the most interesting take-aways was a Dr. Scholls commercial (they have machines you can step on now that tell you what's wrong with your feet!). There are exceptions to be sure (you know I love me the Gary Tuchman), but for the most part, 360 has become forgettable. As one of my commenters once put it, the show has turned into something that you would leave on in the background for the noise. It's now news muzak.

Unfortunately, it seems people aren't even turning the show on for the background noise. February's ratings were their lowest in total viewers ever. Pretty sad given that those numbers include a week's worth of excellent live reporting from Haiti. Speaking of the quake, about a week or so after it struck, the Daily Intel blogged a post titled, "If Anderson Cooper Can't Win After an Earthquake, When Can He Win?" At the time, 360 was still there, operating in hell. With so much death still happening, ratings seemed irrelevant, and it felt excessively mean for me to point out the show's failure in this area while they were doing such a great job.

But I bookmarked the post for a later date (that date being now) because I'd say its assessment is pretty spot on. As for the question asked, I think the answer is he can't; he can't win ever. Not anymore. Obviously, this is not just specifically Anderson or the show's fault. CNN has a pretty systemic problem, especially in primetime. What I've found particularly notable is the sea change that's occurred regarding breaking news. In the not too distant past, the network was known as THE place viewers turned to for big news events.

Judging by the numbers, however, they've recently ceded this ground to Fox News. Haiti quake coverage? Fox News won. The State of the Union address? Yep, lost again. I suppose the latter could be dismissed away by the fact that conservatives are much more politically energized right now, and those conservatives are more likely to be Fox News die-hards. Still, I find it hard to believe this stuff doesn't keep an executive or two up at night.

Of course, you're never going to get that impression from CNN president Jon Klein, who seems to be oblivious of the huge gap between what he says about the network and what actually shows up on air. During a recent interview with TV Guide Magazine, he once again emphasized his belief that CNN and the other cable news networks aren't even competitors. I think the pull quote from the piece is actually from the competing TV news executive: "When people come in who don’t normally watch cable news, they go to CNN. The question is how long can [the network] go on like that as more people get their news headlines on the Internet?"

This is a question I've brought up before, and if recent ratings are any indication, the answer is, um, not long. Obviously I can't know exactly what's going on with CNN's viewers--there are many different scenarios that could be at play--but it's no secret their base of loyal viewers is smaller than the other two cable news networks. And this goes back to being boring. To hear Klein and his ilk tell it, straight news simply can't be as engaging as the partisanship served up by Fox News and MSNBC. I don't think that's entirely true, and I also don't think CNN is quite the straight news network that he likes to say.

Perhaps CNN's greatest asset, and one of the main reasons I watch, is that they employ phenomenal reporters. Though it sounds strange, this is why the network endlessly frustrates me. They have this awesome infrastructure set up all over the world, yet when I turn on my TV, I'm met with endless pundits, analysts, and so-called experts speculating away about things that often aren't even relevant. How exactly is that better than Fox News or MSNBC?

Then there's my pet peeve, which is most likely the biggest flaw in journalism today: fake balance. According to Martin Kaplan, director of the University of South California Annenberg's Norman Lear Center, "Straight news is not what it used to be. It has fallen into a bizarre notion that substitutes something called 'balance' for what used to be called 'accuracy' or 'truth' or 'objectivity.'" When it comes to this journalistic offense, CNN is one of the worst culprits I've seen. For some reason, they've gotten it into their heads that the only way to be "objective" is to pretend like both sides are always equal.

During the height of Hurricane Katrina, Anderson did an interview with Senator Mary Landrieu that spoke for a nation. He wasn't taking sides or being opinionated in an egregious way; he was speaking truth to power. And viewers responded in droves. Why it took something so unbelievably horrible for this to occur--literally bodies on an American street--is beyond me. Things are not always equal. In fact, they seldom are. William Jefferson's freezer cash does not equal the massive corruption we've witnessed with the GOP. The consensus of 90 percent of the world's scientists does not equal a small percentage of climate change naysayers funded by Big Oil. And so on. I'm not even asking for the news to ignore skeptics, but my God, where's the context?

I find this kind of reporting can sometimes be more destructive than the information filtered through the partisan lens of the other two cable news networks. And I think it's hurting CNN's brand name, which just might be one of the reasons they've lost that number one spot for breaking news. Too often they try to be everything to everyone and in turn become nothing to nobody. They're bland. Sometimes finding the truth means taking sides, and they're not willing to do that. To wit, they're the complete opposite of The Daily Show. The above quote from Kaplan comes from this American Journalism Review piece, which really lays out the fake balance problem and explains why a comedy show often achieves better journalism than the so-called real news networks.

A few weeks ago, 360 reported on the ethics problems of Charles Rangel (which they recently followed up on). Then last week, The Daily Show, did the same. While watching the latter, I surprised myself with the realization that I trust TDS more than I trust CNN. Many times when watching a political report on CNN, I will find myself wondering if a small issue is being made larger to create balance, or controversial details are being left out so as not to alienate a subset of viewers. I never have this feeling with Jon and the gang. They're no bullshit. They're not trying to please anyone, or make everything equal, or maintain access. It may sound crazy given that they barely even do any of their own reporting, but I trust them. And the fact that even a regular CNN viewer like me can't say the same about them is pretty sad.

It's no wonder that there have been rumors that Anderson Cooper is jumping ship for CBS. According to CNN, they're false. Others claim it was actually Cooper's people that planted the story. That was one of my initial theories--that or CBS did it so that poor Katie Couric would have to accept a lower offer come negotiation time. And hey, if Anderson is using the fact that people still like him (despite his low ratings) as leverage to get a higher offer from CNN, it doesn't make him Machiavelli--it's pretty much how the game is played.

Or maybe he is looking to leave. It hasn't exactly gone unnoticed by regular viewers that he often seems pretty unengaged in the show (save Haiti and some other exceptions). I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if 360 went off the air within the next year or so. It's a vibe I've had lately that I've hinted at here and there. When it happens, I will initially be very sad, both for the loss of something I've invested in so long and for the staff who might experience lost or changed jobs. But honestly, I'll probably be a little relieved as well. (Yes, I realize no one is making me blog or watch, but what can I say, it's hard for me to quit things.) I just hope we get some notice. I always envisioned being given an end date, but after Erica's sudden departure and the way Lou Dobbs left his show, now I'm not so sure. One night I might sit down to find I'm about to do my very last review ever.

But back to Anderson, I'm not sure I see him as a network evening news guy. He is an excellent visceral reporter; he's an average anchor. Taking over for Katie would mean reading headlines from a prompter. He'd really be happy doing that? CBS isn't going to let their main anchor spend three weeks in Haiti or anywhere else. When it comes to keeping him from jumping, that's probably one of CNN's main cards. I know some of the regular viewers have long wished Anderson would quit CNN. I myself have sometimes thought he'd be a much better fit as a morning host to show his lighter talents, coupled with a higher profile at 60 Minutes for his newsier side (or maybe he'll join Oprah's new endeavor). But then there's that issue of breaking news on-the-scene reporting, which only CNN can offer.

This is all just speculation of course. Nobody except those directly involved have any idea what might go down. For now, with regards to the ratings, I'm not sure what to say anymore. It seems like they've reached a place where people expect them to suck and therefore don't watch. It's like a version of a self-fulfilling prophesy or something. Plus, some of the show's decisions seem counterproductive. For example, I just found out that on Wednesday they aired a piece on the Congo narrated by Anderson, but played it only in the second hour. It seems to me that a piece like that is what attracted many loyal viewers to this show in the first place. And it also seems to me that most loyal viewers are going to watch the first hour (because it's live) and not the second. Maybe I'm way off base here, but WTF? It's like they're not even trying.

I'm not going to get into anymore specifics regarding the show; been there and done that. I'd never want them to go partisan, but I think they can probably learn a thing or two from their competitors regarding airing an engaging broadcast. Outside-the-box thinking is desperately needed and no, I don't mean gimmicks. Of course, really shaking things up would mean CNN would have to admit it has a problem. I don't see that happening. So here we are. A network that will never reach its potential. I think both viewers and journalists deserve better than that.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, totally on point about the sad state of AC360/CNN right now. The whole fake balance thing that they excessively indulge in has been one of the reasons it's been difficult to watch 360 over the last year or so. Whenever AC says "the two sides will square off", my TV goes off. What is so hard about giving us plain facts? Viewers need accurate information - there's a lot of misinformation out and the media has a responsibility to not perpetuate it. Anderson prides himself on saying how he tries to run a program that allows a civil discussion, but that all rings hollow when you allow a guest to trot out false info and not call them on it, something he does a little too often for my money.

360's ratings are pretty awful and although I've admired AC and continue to, I've become so frustrated with the show that I don't feel bad about the ratings, I'm hoping it's a wake up call for them to do something to turn the program around, but so far I see no change, it's still panels and pundits. This is a minor thing, but something I HAVE liked is Anderson getting out of the studio to do interviews like the one with Tom Colicchio last week, but they'll need to do much more than that to regain the confidence of their viewers. I'm planning on watching till the bitter end, but I would prefer not to be bitter at all over a news program that had so much potential when it started. In spite of my occasional frustration with him at times, I do know Anderson's a fine reporter when given the opportunity to dig into a story such as Haiti. CNN's not serving him or the viewers well with their current direction.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Sammy said...

I agreed with your point about TDS being a more trusting source of news. They are not afraid of being left leaning. They talk about the fact and take the side of those who make sense. "Reality often have a liberal bias." Doesn't mean you can't criticized Obama when he not doing enough to fulfill his campaign promised. But, give him credit when he deserves it.

I don't believe rating represent the quality of the show (don't even get me started with Jay Leno). However, all the criticism you had for the show is truth. And I blame CNN management for taming down our anchor. I couldn't recognize AC of 2007 who was vibrant, energized and passionate. Most of his field works is still awesome and unique. The "one simple thing" segment is actually the best new thing that happen to AC360 recently. Yet, those pieces are often shows on morning show @ 10am EST or during the second hour of 360 without even a shout out. I had to leave my TV on for the 2nd our in order to see new reports while doing hwk.

I'm depressed about all this after a while. I have only been knowing AC360 for 6 months and been staying just to see it come back to its former glory of 2003, 2005. I guess that's too much to wish for. We have to kill it in order to save it ( Where is the "death panel" when you need it? ;D)

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Great Post :)

CNN has great reporters. That's why CNN's failings actually bother me. They know better. They have better. I COULD be getting great news from CNN! But instead of utilizing what actually makes them superior, they just get by.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Hi Eliza,

Just had the chance to read this post. Oh my, it is so accurate. The last straw for me was the fake balance with the Republican fund-raising document. It can't be better said than what you reflected in paragraph 9. CNN is a shadow of it's former self. Fox News and MSNBC owe what they have to Ted Turner. I'm with you on that AC wouldn't fit as an anchor, I see him on 60 minutes full-time. I don't think you are off base, I feel they are not trying. CNN is like those airlines who remained bloated while Southwest Airlines and others beat them at their own game. Excellent post. Anne D.

3:46 AM  
Blogger eliza said...

@anonymous: The fake balance thing absolutely drives me up a wall. I know it's a source of pride when Anderson says they "don't take sides" and will "let (us) decide for (ourselves)," but I loath it when he says that. I really do. Because essentially what he's saying is that instead of getting to the truth, they're just going to echo both sides and be done with it. That's not journalism.

Pundits spouting unverified information with no one holding them accountable is not any better than what you can find on MSNBC or Fox News. I don't want to imply Anderson never challenges, but the entire format in which CNN operates is not conducive to getting to the real truth. They're holding tight to it though. In fact, it seems like the better their competitors do, the more they cling to their idiotic notion of neutrality.

I'm not exactly bitter about the show's decline specifically. What I'm bitter about is the state of news. This isn't entertainment. This stuff matters. For instance, the health care reform bill will directly affect many lives--maybe even my life--yet the public is almost comically uninformed about it because the coverage has been so poor. You can't put that all on the media (Congress/Obama share blame), but c'mon.

7:02 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Sammy: It's funny, I've always known I've trusted TDS, but it wasn't until I was watching that Rangel piece that I knew I trusted them more. It was a visceral reaction. The doubts I have in my head while watching CNN were absent.

I agree that ratings don't necessarily equal quality. To be fair, 360 does not always suck. Last night, for example, was a pretty solid show in my opinion. The problem now is that they've hit a point that it almost doesn't matter what they do. Even if they were to totally revamp the show (and I don't see that happening), so much damage has been done that it would probably take six months or so to see a noticeable ratings improvement (which would most likely be gained through word of mouth). These things take time. And then if they don't keep their quality level consistent, they'll lose viewers again. I know LOTS of people who have stopped watching. Why CNN is not focused on increasing their regular viewership is beyond me. Newsflash to them: technological advances have made the network's original model almost irrelevant. It can't just be about big news events anymore--people now have the Internet for that.

Sure, they're trying to adapt with things like iReport, but what happens when a new video service or whatnot comes along and all those citizen reporters (working for free!) decide they want to send their breaking news video to that instead? CNN's brand name still carries the network far, but it's weakening everyday.

Putting the "one simple thing" segment in the second hour just shows me they don't get it.

I agree Anderson is a good reporter. Sometimes I think CNN doesn't deserve him (and others).

7:18 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Michelle: Thanks! The reporters are the backbone of the network, but I'm not sure they're treated that way. Sometimes I'd just rather read my Twitter feed (I follow a lot of CNNers) than actually turn on a broadcast. When 360 goes off the air--whenever that may be--there's a good chance I won't watch CNN at all anymore on TV. Instead I'll just seek out actual reporting that ends up online.

@Anne: I think the execs are blaming their poor performance on things they can't control (the public's desire for partisan news), never even considering that they have massive problems of their own doing. It also goes back to laziness, and quite frankly, cowardice. Journalists should be pissing off people in power, not fretting over whether or not a report will get them angry email.

7:27 PM  

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