I think year end articles are overdone…it’s like sort of obligatory that you have to do one to wrap up the year whether it’s really warranted or not. Nontheless I decided to do one. But, what would I write about?
Well I could have written about CNN’s changes through the year. American Morning lost an hour, CNN said so long to Daryn Kagan and Carol Lin, cut back on its weekend news a bit, renamed Live From to CNN Newsroom (welcoming Don Lemon and TJ Holmes to the newscast), debuting the hi tech newsroom in New York City, bringing Zain Verjee over from CNN International first to The Situation Room and then later installing her at the State Department.
And I could have written about the changes at HLN. Glenn Beck’s show premiered and has started creeping up in the ratings, the anchor lineup during the day was changed not once, not twice, but three times which saw Kathleen Kennedy and Thomas Roberts get essentially demoted, Stephen Frasier moved to CNN International, and Sophia Choi let go (much to my consternation) while Robin & Company added an hour and Christi Paul moved from weekend tape to live news at 10 am.
I suppose I could have written about the changes at FNC. Weekends there were getting tweaked for what seemed like all year long as the network continued to deal with the unintended ramifications that the departures of Geraldo Rivera (to syndication) and Rita Cosby (to MSNBC) plus the departure of Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy to Dayside, both of which occurred in 2005, caused to the morning and primetime lineups. Even weekend daytime was adjusted with talent shuffling and the creation of Studio B weekend with Trace Gallagher, who more or less became FNC’s number 2 anchor to Shepard Smith, and Julie Banderas taking over The Big Story. Brigitte Quinn basically demoted herself off of weekday anchoring for personal reasons and her shift was eventually filled by E.D. Hill when Gretchen Carlson moved to Fox and Friends. Juliet Huddy and Mike Jerrick moved to Fox Broadcast and Martha MacCallum moved into that time period with the debut of The Live Desk. Filling MaCallum’s old slot was Jane Skinner. After being demoted off of HLN and then let go from CNN, Rudi Bakhtiar joined FNC.
I could write about MSNBC’s changes in 2006. The big change which contributed to further changes was Rick Kaplan’s exit as President despite having brought the network’s ratings up since he took over in 2004. His unlikely successor was Dan Abrams (with Phil Griffin overseeing Abrams). The result of that move meant the cancellation of Abrams’ own program from the network but it was just the first cancellation. Rita Cosby lost her primetime show and Tucker Carlson had his show move to afternoons (and the format changed and then recently changed again). Cosby was supposed to be heading up a Specials Unit but we have yet to really see much come from that change and I have serious questions about whether we ever will now that she has been firmly put in the 1pm anchor slot. This resulted in a two hour gap in primetime which MSNBC filled with longform taped programming. 2006 saw the birth of Alison Stewart’s The Most and the death of Chris Jansing’s The Ethical Edge (much to my chagrin). Lisa Daniels went to the NBC mothership as a reporter and Randy Meier was suddenly let go after Abrams’ installation as GM while the rumors ran wild as to the circumstances behind that departure. MSNBC dropped its 12-4 Sunday newscast but kept the Saturday version…for the moment. As the election approached viewers started seeing more NBC faces on MSNBC but that has tailed off significantly since the end of the election. When Abrams took over there was a welcome return to more in depth coverage and a move away from affiliate package reports. It also marked the beginning of the “talking producer” gimmick which in my opinion is unfortunately still a work in progress in how effective it works.
I could write about the Keith Olbermann feud with Bill O’Reilly and how O’Reilly made a strategic blunder in responding to Olbermann’s attacks. But far too much space has been devoted to that conflict on this blog already.
I could write about the ratings changes in 2006 with MSNBC surging and CNN and FNC dropping (depending on which network’s press releases you read). A lot of FNC detractors went into Chicken Little mode, prematurely in my opinion, and started predicting the return to ratings earth for the Roger Ailes’ headed network. And there was some overblown reporting of a real fight for second between CNN and MSNBC. But the year ended the way it started; FNC way out in front, CNN firmly second, MSNBC in third but closing the gap between itself and CNN. And as we head into 2007 I don’t see anything yet that points to that ranking changing. But that’s the problem with trends. You don’t truly see them until they’re well established.
But ultimately what I want to write about; the one story that really dominated 2006 in my opinion, was the rise of righteous indignation as a programming trend. If one looks carefully one could trace this trend back to 2005 with Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson’s War on Christmas crusade, the outrage over Hurricane Katrina by Anderson Cooper and Shepard Smith, and the debut of Nancy Grace’s HLN program. They marked the beginning of a trend in cable news…the rise of righteous indignation by show hosts. This new paradigm was seen most clearly on two programs, Lou Dobbs Tonight and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, as the two shows’ hosts staked out positions on national policy and then ran them into the ground while riding them up the ratings ladder. Suddenly being a show host wasn’t enough…you had to be a show host with a strong vocal opinion. Glenn Beck’s Headline News show also started down this road to a lesser degree. Both CNN and MSNBC started featuring their hot talents in more prominent situations. Dobbs hosted Town Hall meetings over issues he had been opining on all year long. Olbermann began being featured on more and more hard news situations which one wouldn’t normally consider him suited for (the 2006 elections and next week’s Gerald Ford services).
Both Dobbs and Olbermann had accidentally revealed a fundamental truth in cable news (which I would argue that people like O’Reilly had been tapping into for years); while cable news audience size is small compared to broadcast news it is viewed by groups of people of varying ideologies with a rabid interest in what goes on. If you can tap into one group’s ideological bent you can draw them in in numbers large enough to drive your show’s ratings higher. You may cause people with other points of view to tune out but that will be offset (and then some) by the new “true believers” who tune in to hear what they want to hear. It looks on its face like righteous indignation but it’s more like preaching to the choir.
While this righteous indignation trend took hold of all four networks to one degree or another in 2006, I don’t see how it can last as a long term programming concept. You can only be angry at one thing for so long before people lose interest. While O’Reilly has been doing it for years, he has varied the subjects he picks on which range from conservative to liberal to libertarian. And I think that is a major reason why his format has lasted for so long. One can’t make the same argument regarding either Olbermann or Dobbs (or Beck). Their focus has so far been narrow and hasn’t deviated. It will be interesting to watch how their respective programs evolve, if at all, as 2007 unfolds and what that does to their ratings…