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With Ratings Down, the Networks Hunt For a Trump Replacement

Trump saved the cable news business once. Without him, things are looking bleak again. Who will they find to feed the outrage machine?

By Matt Taibbi

March 19, 2021 "Information Clearing House" -  Variety just published a graph that should horrify cable news executives:

This data, showing significant declines in all of the major primetime cable news shows, came in a piece called, “Cable News Ratings Begin To Suffer Trump Slump.” Gavin Bridge of the Variety Intelligence Platform explained:

VIP has previously covered the initial ratings decline Fox News, MSNBC and, most of all, CNN, saw in President Biden’s first week, as the nonstop controversies of the previous administration slowed down.

Our prediction that audiences would perk up for President Trump’s second impeachment trial proved correct. But in the weeks after the trial ended, audiences for CNN have plummeted; MSNBC is seeing about half CNN’s drop, while Fox News is down single digits.

It’s natural for news audiences to dip after seismic events like the January 6th riots. CNN had its best month ever in January, and individual shows like Anderson Cooper 360 jumped above 5 million viewers.

Still, Variety’s report showing significant ratings drops as we move farther away from the Trump experience is both predictable and fascinating. It’s not clear how media executives will respond to losing the best friend they ever had. They will either have to surrender to the idea of significant long-term losses — impossible to imagine — or find a way to continue an all-time blockbuster entertainment franchise, which doubled as the most divisive public relations campaign in our history, without the show’s main character.

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Trump transformed news into a ratings Krakatoa, combining the side-against-side drama of sports programming with the amphetamine urgency of breaking news.

Moreover, the Democratic Party’s response to Trump — which involved multiple efforts to remove him, premised on the idea that every day he spent in the Oval Office was an existential threat to humanity — allowed stations to turn every day of the Trump years into a baby-down-a-well story (the baby was democracy). Between the Mueller investigation, two impeachments, the Kavanaugh confirmation, multiple border crises, the “Treason in Helsinki” fiasco, and a hundred other tales, every day could be pitched as a drop-everything emergency.

Add the partisan rooting angle, and you had ratings gold. Imagine three or four dozen Super Bowls a year, each one played in the middle of a category 5 hurricane, and you come close to grasping the magnitude of the gift that Donald Trump was to MSNBC, Fox, and CNN.

Six or seven years ago, it was common to see CNN or MSNBC fall outside the top 20 rated cable networks, below titans like Disney, USA, TBS, and the History Channel. By 2020, the three top networks on cable — not just news networks, but overall — were Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. The fact that news ate away so much of the market share of the entertainment business in the Trump years raises questions about what exactly we were watching.

Jump in your Dr. Who police box and go back to 2014, the last year Trump was not a major political figure. The cable news genre had what Variety described as an “overall down year.” It was a particularly grim time for CNN and MSNBC:

Total Primetime Viewers, 2014 Change
Fox News             1.779 million (even)
MSNBC                   600,000     (down 8%)
CNN                         528,000      (down 8%)
HLN                         337,000      (down 16%)

CNN exemplified the pre-Trump dilemma. In 2011, the network’s average primetime viewership was 689,000. That dropped to 670,000 in 2012, and the year after that, in 2013, it fell all the way to 568,000, a 20-year low. Imagine the pucker factor at Time Warner the next year, when CNN’s entire 8-11 p.m. programming slate dropped 8% off that 20-year dip.

2013 was CNN’s first year under the management of Jeff Zucker, whose career arc leading into the Trump years was a dazzling study in failing upward. He was named head of NBC Entertainment in 2000, and rode the successes of a handful of shows — including, notably, The Apprentice — into a job as CEO of NBC Universal, where he presided over one of the most disastrous tenures of any TV executive in history. Under his leadership, NBC dropped to fourth behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, amid catastrophic decisions like trying to move Jay Leno into primetime.

When Zucker moved to CNN, he trumpeted a new plan to save the news. This is from Politico in 2013:

Zucker has told staff he wants to “broaden the definition of what news is,” meaning more sports, more entertainment, more human interest stories — and, at times, less politics.

That didn’t work out so well in 2014, though to be fair to Zucker, the ratings narrative started reversing at least somewhat before Trump jumped on the scene. But the first gigantic leap forward for the business as a whole came in 2015, when CNN's average primetime audience soared to 730,000, a 30% increase, in significant part because it hosted two Republican debates starring Trump.

The news business had never seen anything like the Trump effect. The first Republican debate on Fox drew 25 million viewers and was the most-watched non-sports event in the history of cable, while the second debate drew 23 million and was merely the top show in the history of CNN.

Taking note of all this was Trump himself, whose poll numbers were dipping a bit at the end of 2015. Some were predicting his demise. To this, Trump snapped, “I’m not a masochist,” and promised he’d pull out if his numbers worsened. However, he said, if he did, “There’d be a major collapse of television ratings,” adding a poisonous prediction: “It would become a depression in television.”

The predicted depression obviously never materialized, as he won the nomination, and all three major cable outlets saw huge jumps. Fox’s average primetime viewership jumped from 1.8 million to 2.48 million. CNN’s went from 730,000 to 1.3 million. MSNBC saw a staggering 87% increase, from 596,000 viewers on average, to 1.1 million.

Across the next three years of a Trump presidency, Fox ratings mostly held in the 2.5 million range, CNN settled in at around a million viewers, and MSNBC continued rising, to about 1.8 million. Then in 2020, another election year, ratings soared again: Fox jumped to 3.62 million, MSNBC went to 2.15 million, and CNN gained nearly 800,000 viewers, to 1.79 million.

By January and February of this year, with the January 6th riot and impeachment dominating coverage, MSNBC briefly jumped ahead and became the top-rated cable network overall, prompting Rachel Maddow to do a rare on-air end zone dance. Five and a half years of the Trump experience crested in both political insanity and unimaginable ratings highs. MSNBC nearly quadrupled its pre-Trump audience, CNN roughly tripled its own, and Fox, which was starting from a stronger position, still managed a nearly 100% increase in viewership.

Now it looks poised to roll back. Both TV and print news companies made devil’s bargains in the Trump years, and it’s now either time to pay up, or somehow cheat the ferryman to avoid that “depression.”

Trump’s arrival created a dilemma for news execs. On the one hand, he was an ATM machine. Put him on air, and revenue was automatic. The three biggest networks earned $2.85 billion in profits just last year.

The problem was that the coverage formula that made the most money involved taking strong stances either for or against him. Trump was to blue-state audiences what Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been for Fox watchers: a mesmerizing lodestar of political horror. The more villainous he could be made out to be, the higher the ratings that networks could score.

In the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” era, news companies launched elaborate marketing campaigns in prime slots that typically were home to superhero movie ads — the Oscars, the Super Bowl, etc. The constant theme of the ads was news as a collective mission, in which audience and network alike were on an oppositional journey to save the world from the lies of the Orange One. (Fox was an exception obviously — more on them later). MSNBC marched under the banner of “This is who we are”:

If that’s who “we” were, who were “they”? Easy: the people who tried to tell you an apple is a banana, by putting “BANANA!” in all caps:

Late Night With Stephen Colbert did a parody of that 2017 ad that was barely distinguishable from CNN’s actual posture. “They’ll tell you to ignore the emails that explicitly show the banana took a meeting with a Putin-connected Russian lawyer,” the Colbert version says, before ending: “This isn’t a banana. It’s an apple. A really stupid apple.”

If you didn’t want to be a stupid apple, you tuned in. That was the “ring around the collar” side of the marketing. The carrot was the promise of victory, the spasm of ecstasy when Trump finally did the Nixon walk across the White House lawn before taking his Marine One ride straight to hell (or, preferably, Florence Colorado).

That’s what all those “The walls are closing in” stories were about — straight-up hype ads. In the five-year pep rally, the Smart Glasses Avengers on MSNBC and CNN told you every day about how Trump and his minions were superstitious dolts who chugged fishtank cleaner, sprinkled Covid-19 on their scrambled eggs, and wore hoods for family games of Chutes and Ladders.

MSNBC saw a bigger overall rise than CNN in the last four years because it jumped more enthusiastically into the oppositional posture. Though CNN moved in that direction as well, it tended to be viewed as more of a default news source, which is why it led the pack for instance during the Capitol riot, a major event that attracted lots of casual news watchers. Still, CNN under Zucker moved as far as it could toward the MSNBC format — Jim Acosta might as well have worn #Resistance pom-poms to the White House.

I thought this approach was a mistake five years ago, in part because the new tactic seemed to misinform the public. Using Trump to drive ad sales required selling him up as much as possible as an all-powerful monster, as Fox had done with Obama and the Clintons. This directly or indirectly led audiences to see him as the cause of America’s problems, as opposed to what he seemed more likely to really be, i.e. a porn version of Chauncey Gardner — an accidental leader carried into power as the lucky beneficiary of long-developing frustrations and schisms in American society.

Moreover, what would news companies do, once Thanos/Voldemort/Moriarty exited the stage? The widespread expectation among people in the business since Trump’s loss in November has been that anti-Trump outlets would either have to find a way to keep Trump in the news, or find substitutes.

They picked door number two, and are being remarkably open about it. CNN just ran a business story entitled, “Tucker Carlson is the new Donald Trump, Brian Stelter says.” In it, the CNN media reporter says he believes Carlson is stepping into the Trump role for Republicans and Fox. However, the business story feels more like an expression of belief that Carlson might “fill the void” as an overall “outrage generator” and focus of oppositional coverage:

Stelter argues that Carlson has filled the void Trump left when he was voted out of office.

"Tucker has taken Trump's place as a right-wing leader, as an outrage generator, as a fire-starter, and it's all taking place on Fox, just as Trump's campaign did," Stelter said. "Every day, Carlson is throwing bombs, making online memes, offending millions of people also delighting millions of others, tapping into White male rage and resentment, stoking distrust of big tech and the media, generally coarsening the discourse, never apologizing for anything and setting the GOP's agenda. Sounds like a recently retired president, right?"

The piece even offered hope that the Fox host might be a new and improved right-wing bogeyman:

Tucker knows what he's doing, CNN political commentator SE Cupp told Stelter.

"I can't decide if he's the rich man's Trump or the poor man's Trump," she said. "In some ways, he's smarter than Trump."

One outlet after another is now arguing that some combination of Carlson or Fox News could become a new lead in the Trump show. The Poynter Institute wrote, “Why CNN was right to go after Tucker Carlson,” while the Baltimore Sun wrote that Fox should be thought of as a “political tool.” Media critic David Zurawik scoffed at this quote from Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch:

The main beneficiary of the Trump administration from a ratings point of view was MSNBC… And that’s because they were the loyal opposition. That’s what our job is now with the Biden administration, and you’ll see our ratings really improve from here.

In terms of raw numbers, Fox might have been the bigger overall beneficiary of the Trump years, but the rest of this Murdoch quote is correct, down to the prediction that Fox’s ratings will probably hold, now that the channel can revert back to its favored posture of kicking the crap out of a Democratic President’s every move.

Fox makes no pretense about what it is. It will benefit from the open hostility of networks like CNN and MSNBC and papers like the Post and Times, whose excesses and errors will be the subject of luxurious attention (the recent disclosure that the Post misreported the infamous “find the fraud” tape will be savored, for instance).

That’s no triumph, however. Fox learned the hard way that once you taste the profits from selling outrage, the format ends up owning you. You have to keep upping the ante, and before long, a slow news day forces you to make Matterhorns out of the tiniest molehills. That’s how Fox ended up making news out of Barack Obama ordering Dijon mustard (Sean Hannity even played the “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” commercial) or wearing a tan suit. It’s how they ended up doing body-language analysis to conclude that the Obamas were engaging in “terrorist fist-bumps”:

Their opposite numbers at CNN and MSNBC copied that exact formula in the last five years, even sinking to the same body-language scam (Joy Ann Reid brought on the exact same body language expert from Fox’s “terrorist fist-bump” episode, Janine Driver, to intone that Bernie Sanders was a liar). When they weren’t attacking Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard or Jill Stein, these stations were filling every on-air second with Trump-centric chyron-barbs like “Trump’s Annual Physical Now Shows He Is Obese,” to “Twitter Typo: The President’s Covfefe” to, no kidding, “President Gets Two Scoops Of Ice Cream, Everyone Else One”:

Fox turned news into a rooting section, and when Trump came along, its supposedly more “legitimate” counterparts ate from the same forbidden fruit. Now Trump is gone and they’ll end up doing what Fox does, to hold outrage-addicted audiences: spend eternity scouring the earth for airtime monsters. It’s either that or volunteer to lose billions, and when have we seen any American corporation do that?

Matt Taibbi is an American author, journalist, and podcaster. He has reported on finance, media, politics, and sports. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, author of several books, co-host of Useful Idiots, and publisher of a newsletter on Substack

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