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The Fifth Wave: CNN’s Long Goodbye
Cable news will likely be swallowed by the revolution it began
The Trump era felt like a meth high to the news business, very much including the cable news networks—CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. All you had to do was aim the camera at the orange man and watch the dollars roll in. Trump’s defeat in 2020 and his subsequent silencing by the social media platforms, conversely, has been a disaster—the public has tuned out of the news in general, and cable news ratings have crashed almost as dramatically as the stock market.
Hardest hit has been CNN, the original and eponymous “cable news network.” After 2016, CNN took an overtly anti-Trump stance in its news and analysis, delighting in reporting Trumpian “lies,” for example, and in turn was accused by Trump of peddling “fake news.” The tiff made for good theater, and audience numbers rose with the rising tide. But CNN was never going to outdo MSNBC in progressive-friendly content or deliver as pure a Trump-loathing voice as Rachel Maddow’s, and the network had written off conservative viewers. It lacked a niche and an identity.
With the arrival of the untelegenic Joe Biden in the White House, CNN has lurched perilously close to the edge. Average audience in August 2022 was a mere 561,000. Its top-rated prime time show, hosted by Anderson Cooper, ranked 25th overall and attracted less than a million viewers. (Nine of the top 10 cable news shows in August belonged to Fox, with the one exception being Maddow at MSNBC.) Cable news is a profitable business, yet according to The New York Times CNN’s profits are “plummeting” and are projected to fall under $1 billion for the first time since that fateful year of 2016.
Company president Jeff Zucker’s vision of the digital future was a streaming service named CNN+, built on the implausible premise that a public already surrounded on all sides by information platforms would be eager to pay $5.99 a month for a few more hours of TV news. Zucker expected to get 2 million CNN+ subscribers. Instead, fewer than 10,000 daily viewers showed up. Despite a sunk investment of $300 million, CNN+ aborted only weeks after its initial launch. Half of the service’s 700 employees were reportedly laid off—by then, Zucker was gone as well.
A Journalistic Purge and a Search for Identity
The identity crisis reached psychotic proportions in April of this year, when the network found itself under new ownership as part of a vast and complex media reshuffling by AT&T that left the company’s media properties under the control of Discovery Inc. The new bosses at what was now Warner Brothers Discovery did not love the CNN way of doing business. They wanted fresh faces. Though lacking experience in the news business, they had ideas about how to firm up the network’s squishy sense of self: abandon the anti-Trump jihad and return to reporting objective news.
Before any change in direction, however, came a purge. First to go—on ethical grounds, ahead of the switch in ownership—was CNN’s most popular anchor, Chris Cuomo, whose regular interviews of his own brother, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, could stand as the Sistine ceiling of Trump-era media strangeness. Zucker left in February 2022—tainted, like Cuomo, by allegations of sexual misconduct. Next to depart was legal affairs correspondent Jeffrey Toobin, whose most famous expose was thankfully never watched by the mass audience. Shortly after, White House correspondent John Harwood and “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter left the network. Neither man was touched by scandal—but both had been ferocious fighters in the Trump wars.
It is by no means certain that the massacre is over. Chris Licht, Zucker’s successor as network head, has warned his staff: “There will be more changes and you may not understand it or like it all.” The nature of those changes has not been specified, at least in public, and the new owners appear to be groping their way forward. But the hints coming from the top must be unnerving to old CNN hands.
In a statement that was later fudged, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav called the network “the leader in news to the left.” Elsewhere Zaslav has argued that he wants to put “journalism first”: “America needs a news network where everyone can come and be heard; Republicans, Democrats.” John Malone, who is Zaslav’s good friend and an influential member of the Warner Brothers Discovery board, has been more explicit: “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” Malone scandalized the CNN rank and file by comparing the network, unfavorably, to that house of media horrors, Fox News.
If such statements reflect a coherent strategy, the power players at CNN’s parent company have assumed that a significant audience can be won for old-fashioned “journalism” and objective reporting. Presumably, the idea would be to carve out the bulk of responsible viewers from both the right and the left—“Republicans, Democrats”—while dumping the irreconcilable fanatics on MSNBC and Fox. The move has been presented as a return to first principles: journalism as it used to be. The question is whether it makes sense as a business model in the year 2022.
The Cable News Revolution and Its Limitations
What, exactly, was the golden age to which CNN would “evolve back” in the hopes of its new owners? The 24-hour television news network was the brainchild of Ted Turner, a colorful and innovative figure much like an earlier version of Steve Jobs. (Turner, a Georgian, went on to purchase the Atlanta Braves and could be seen at their games doing The Chop with his sometimes wife, Jane Fonda.) The idea was both simple and compelling. Network television news at the time was a 30-minute slice ahead of prime time: the “evening news.” Events, however, played out around the clock. More than a decade before the internet started to change everything, Turner constructed a TV news-gathering organization that appeared to follow events as they happened; for a broadcasting platform he turned to cable, which was enjoying explosive growth in subscribers. Income would flow from advertising and licensing to affiliate stations.
CNN went live on June 1, 1980—the electric excitement of that initial broadcast still clings to the old-fashioned personages transfixed in the moment on YouTube. The media world would never be the same. CNN made the news ubiquitous, made the moving image ubiquitous, made the screen ubiquitous, until one couldn’t enter an airport, restaurant or bar without being flooded with video accompanied by trained voices conveying various levels of urgency or excitement. In this regard, the network prepared the ground for the digital dispensation: for the universal fixation with the smaller screens of our devices and the triumph of the image over the printed word. It also stoked the novel expectation that we must somehow remain connected to events 24 hours a day. I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that we live in an information environment invented by Ted Turner in June 1980.
But there were limitations from the start. Far from being objective, cable news delivered an entirely subjective vision—that of the camera. Questions of access, perspective and directorial priorities imposed the rule of subjectivity all the way down. When the method worked, we seemed to be looking directly at dramatic incidents as these unfolded. Live footage of the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 1990, with anchor Bernard Shaw’s steady voice in the background, may have been the most spectacular news coverage in history.
There would be other events that played to CNN’s strengths, such as 9/11. Yet most of the time, nothing was going on. Exciting visuals were lacking. CNN evolved into a bloated version of the evening news, endlessly repeating the few arresting images available while searching with palpable desperation for enough stuff to fill a 24-hour schedule.
By necessity, long stretches of air time were spent on trivialities. I remember being trapped in an airport watching for one painful hour a CNN broadcast of an unmoving airplane on the tarmac—literally nothing was happening. Michael Jackson was supposed to be on the plane, and he was apparently about to be arrested, but this wasn’t Baghdad or any kind of shock and awe: the action had moved off-camera. Even the golden age of CNN was mixed with baser metals. With the new century and the full on arrival of the internet, journalism became an impossible luxury and the scramble to churn out attention-getting material often degenerated into the lowest farce.
Add to that the warping effect of Trump’s advent on the scene. As always, Trump served as an indicator—a symptom, not the cause, of a sick institution. Economic pressures had long favored talking heads over news footage. Digital platforms spewed more video than the human race could absorb, placing in question the future of cable television. Trump, portrayed as a destroyer of worlds, was quite consciously embraced as the savior of CNN’s corner of the universe. “We’ve seen that if we break away from the Trump story ... the audience goes away,” Zucker said back in 2018. A codependency was born. No doubt Covid-19 fit the same pattern. Fear of the pandemic kept us locked down at home, frantic for information, with the TV as our only friend.
That time is over. We have escaped our homes ready to work and play. At the moment, Trump is a diminished figure. There are no saviors from this turbulent age. After a reality-distorting binge, the network has staggered awake to confront an existential dilemma: whether the 24-hour news format riding a cable platform can survive in the current environment.
The Persistence of Television and the Incentives of Cable
Some day, television will be replaced by a pair of goggles that beam us to the metaverse. Before then, the TV will become just one more flat screen to which we can connect in the home. Statistically, for better or worse, neither scenario is yet a reality. Television penetration has declined slightly over the last 15 years—to 96.4% of all U.S. households. More than half of those households contain three or more TV sets. The internet’s disruptive effects and oligarchical corporate structure attract our fascination, but television, in the year 2022, may remain the most potent medium within the information sphere.
Television technology has been transformed since the last century. Because definition was poor and the screens small, Marshall McLuhan in 1964 declared TV to be a “low information” or “cool” medium, in which the viewer was invited to fill in the details. Today, of course, screens can be immense and the sharpness of definition would have been undreamed-of even by film productions in McLuhan’s day. Richard Nixon, McLuhan believed, had lost the 1960 election because he was too “hot” for television. So what are we to make of Donald Trump?
The proliferation of commercials and the itch to change channels convert the TV experience into a jumble of disconnected images and sounds—tragedy, comedy and boredom can succeed one other in a single minute of viewing. We, the audience, crave something. Evidently, we wish to be amused. In this respect, the technological innovation most destructive of traditional viewing may well be the remote control switch. In the old days, we settled on a channel and sat back to watch. Shows were stacked one upon another so we would lack the incentive ever to get up again. The remote control device placed television content on a par with the digital: both are driven by a panicked need to keep eyeballs glued to the screen, always searching for something better. For a 24-hour news broadcaster on a day lacking good visuals, fear of the remote control will distort both the substance presented and the manner of presentation.
Cable television offers a different set of peculiarities. Audiences are surprisingly small. Fox, the 800-pound gorilla of cable news, constantly attacked by the left for its pernicious influence over the public, drew an “average total audience” of 2.3 million in August 2022. Just as a reminder, that’s 1/140th of the population of the United States—or, if you wish, around 1/70th of the people who voted in the 2020 presidential election.
At the same time, substantial profits can be extracted from a relatively small number of viewers. The trick is to strip production of overhead—actors, star anchors, fancy graphics, batteries of writers, foreign bureaus. Drawn by the law of economic necessity, all of cable, including news, aspires to a specific kind of format: reality TV. The Trump boom in cable news should have alerted us to this fact. Trump’s opponents believed he was trying to turn the U.S. into fascist Italy. In reality, he successfully transformed our politics into a tawdrier version of “Naked and Afraid,” in which bizarreness and titillation made up (more or less) for the lack of a story, intelligible dialogue or coherence in human behavior. Nothing made sense—but we were vaguely entertained. That’s the way with cable.
Fox and MSNBC have largely completed the transition to reality TV. All the top programs highlight talking heads, not news reports, thus reducing overhead to a minimum. The tone is apocalyptic and post-journalistic: it’s endlessly us, the freedom-loving masses, against them, our demonic oppressors, and snippets are shown to illustrate the malice and idiocy of the enemy. The audience is expected to hoot and cheer. In this way, political fanaticism is transmuted into entertainment fandom.
The move is needed because mere information has become too pervasive to sustain a successful business model. Most of us are connected to a newsfeed that pursues us with relentless determination around the clock, wherever we go. We are sated, overfull with news—the thought of more induces nausea. Newspapers were the first to encounter this revulsion. A handful of the most famous newspaper brands have leaped on post-journalism as on a raft in the wreck. The rest are quickly dying out. Television network and cable news, post-Trump, share the same predicament. They must either amuse us or wither away in the fullness of time.
The Uncertain Fate of Cable News
The longing for pure journalism by CNN’s new masters is an exercise in nostalgia for a past that never existed. You can entertain Republicans at the expense of Democrats and vice versa, but if both are on the receiving end the audience will be left with neither. This has less to do with our political pathologies than with the structure and flow of information in the digital age. Except for extraordinary moments, which are fleeting and not always caught on camera, nobody under the age of 65 will go to television to catch up with events. To cross that line, additional charms are called for. Fox plays the tunes beloved by the right. MSNBC does the same for the left. CNN could pitch to the elites with a display of objectivity, but the establishment that once occupied the center of American politics has recently converted to a progressive and identitarian faith—its heart belongs to MSNBC.
Another imponderable obscures CNN’s view ahead. Television, I said, will remain a dominant medium into the middle distance, but the system for feeding its content is up for grabs. Network and cable TV are suffering steep declines in popularity. Young people, in particular, are defecting from both. Beyond such signs and portents, we know that the future will be digital, and this probably means streaming of some sort. Fear of the remote switch will then be compounded by the horror of digital limbo—of sleeping inert and unheard, like the genie in the bottle, until summoned by an audience.
There would appear to be a fatal contradiction between an industry that commodifies “breaking news” and a platform that aims for click-and-binge access. The unhappy life and early death of CNN+ can be interpreted as another waystation on the journey of an institution that has outlived its moment, presaging a wider extinction event for the business of news as a whole.
This latest Fifth Wave column is also the first in an occasional series by Martin Gurri and others on future of the news media.