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Cable News in the Age of Millennials

This past week, MSBNC announced it would be canceling both the Reid Report and Ronan Farrow Daily, two of its daytime shows that had been attracting infinitesimal audiences as of late. The network, long viewed as a progressive alternative to Fox News, has been hemorrhaging viewers for months, falling behind CNN in the key demographic (25-54) and failing to reach its profit goals. Meanwhile, Fox News remains the top-rated network, and CNN has seen significant improvements since its new president, Jeff Zucker, began to reshape its programming. With the MSNBC changes, it seems as if the network’s president, Phil Griffin, is keen on improving numbers by shifting the network’s priorities before the 2016 presidential election is in full swing. In the modern media climate, where millions of Americans get all their news online or through social media and the public increasingly distrusts cable news, all three major cable news networks are desperately trying to attract new and younger viewers in various interesting ways. The success of their strategies, however, whether they be increasing or limiting partisan programming or replacing traditional news with Anthony Bourdain, could have troublesome implications.

CNN has completely revamped its programming and reevaluated its role in bringing news to its audiences. Fox, however, despite the addition of Kelly in prime time, has stuck to the same game plan. Both networks, despite diverging agendas, elicit higher viewing numbers and are experiencing faster growth than their liberal counterpart, MSNBC. The question remains, then: Why does MSNBC, which employs the same strategy, lag so far behind? It seems that if a conservative network is so successful at attracting conservative audiences, a liberal network should be able to do the same.

These discrepancies could be attributed to the personalities in Fox’s and MSNBC’s prime time lineups. Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell host MSNBC’s 8-10 programs. Respectively, they attended Brown, Stanford and Harvard. They are all policy wonks with pretentious vocabularies, professorial tones and reliably liberal views. Fox’s lineup in the same time slot consists of Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity. O’Reilly and Kelly attended Marist College and Syracuse, respectively, while Hannity dropped out of both NYU and Adelphi. Although Kelly is an exception, Hannity and O’Reilly are both incredibly combative with guests and usually incredibly conservative. While Lawrence O’Donnell can be aggressive too, O’Reilly and Hannity routinely invite liberal guests to their programs and berate them for the entire interview. It may not be informational, but it is certainly entertaining and often far more so than Hayes or Maddow, whose monologues resemble college lectures. O’Reilly and Hannity are likely more relatable to the average American and certainly more relatable to their older white audiences. Fox’s hosts are certainly educated, but they don’t employ extended metaphors or obnoxiously intellectual vocabulary to prove their points. This relatability and accessibility characteristic of Fox News may be key to its success and indicative of MSNBC’s failure.

The partisanship of cable news audiences presents further reason for the divergent viewership numbers of Fox and MSNBC. The older audience of the former proves to be far more reliably conservative than audiences in the key demographic and younger generations. Although it may be different in the future, right now, an overtly liberal news organization cannot compete with a station like Fox, whose programs are more in tandem with the views of sexagenarians, who are the primary consumers of cable news.

Some also argue that the shrinking audiences are due to a lack of public trust. It seems as though this is a much smaller player, however, than partisanship. When it comes to journalistic integrity, all three networks are frequently misled. While the trend for MSNBC and CNN has been to prevaricate less, possibly due to the prevalence of Politifact, a website dedicated to grading pundits and politicians on the accuracy of their statements, Fox News anchors have actually been increasingly guilty of untruths according to the fact checking service. All three networks have lackluster trust ratings, all ranging in the mid to high 30s, with Fox at the bottom. These ratings are inextricably partisan, as Republicans only trust Fox News, and Democrats trust anything but Fox News. All three networks’ astonishingly low trust ratings seem to suggest that none of their successes or failures can be chalked up to being the most or least trustworthy. In fact, the least trustworthy network consistently leads the pack in viewership by large margins.

Overall, all three major cable news networks face declining viewership and an aging audience. Fox News, by far the most popular and successful cable news channel, boasts the oldest audience and the whitest, with an average age of 68 and a black viewership of only 1.1%. CNN and MSNBC don’t fare much better age-wise, with an average age of 60, but have significantly more diverse audiences. Comparing performances within the demographic of 25-54 year olds is especially important to these networks because, as their aging audiences die off, they could be left without enough viewers to sustain programming.

To deal with the looming crisis, all three networks are desperately trying to court younger viewers. Fox News did so by selecting an impressive, ffemale former lawyer to their prime time lineup, Megyn Kelly, who is a sharp contrast to her Fox News counterparts. She is well-respected, cerebral and young. Hannity and O’Reilly are both over 50, radically conservative and frequently mocked for their extreme biases. Although Kelly has done immensely well for Fox, even beating Bill O’Reilly in the ratings, she has not elicited any attention from younger or more diverse viewers.

CNN, on the other hand, has had some success finding ways to bring in younger and larger audiences. When the current president, Jeff Zucker, took over the network, CNN was stuck in third, behind both Fox and MSNBC. Now, CNN has beaten MSNBC for eight months straight in the key demographic. Zucker’s effort to focus on breaking news and adding original series to the lineup have proved crucial to CNN’s preeminence. This turn away from traditional news reporting with entertaining documentaries, excessive breaking news coverage and intellectual reality shows has produced positive results. CNN’s average age has actually decreased to 58 recently, giving it the youngest audience in cable news, one of the first signs that cable news might be able to compete for future generations.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin is also trying to turn the network around before the 2016 presidential election begins. One of the primary ways he hopes to do this is by limiting the increasingly liberal perspective of the network — a sharp contrast from past policies, considering that their network motto featured on almost every promotion is “Lean Forward,” a motto eerily similar to President Obama’s 2012 reelection slogan, “Forward.” A shift away from opinion-based programming could mean that some of its most prominent anchors would be demoted. The first to go, many say, will be Chris Hayes. Although it will certainly be a disappointment for liberal policy wonks to forego their daily dose of lecture, the show’s dismal ratings prove that most cannot sit through the hour of liberal proselytizing. Although occasionally edifying, this news format seems overwhelmingly unpopular and doomed to fail. Griffin’s changes might not save the network in the long run, but they could postpone its demise.

It’s unclear if any of these ideas will work or if any of these networks will survive in the age of the millennial, but their desperation to attract the youth is telling. Viewers turned away from CNN because it delivered largely straightforward, dull information. They have begun to return because of hybrid news and reality programs, like Anthony Bourdain and quiz shows. Fox, on the other hand, owes its success to an incredibly old and conservative audience that doesn’t mind a homogeneously white and extremist lineup. And MSNBC tried to be the liberal alternative to FOX, but its programs were too elitist, too educational and far too progressive for the average American, and they are now planning on becoming less opinionated. As the cable news media struggles to define its role in the coming decades, millennials must define theirs too. If Jon Stewart is the only news we can process, the days of the reign of cable news media are numbered. And though these networks are certainly imperfect, forcing them to become less like serious news organizations and more like E! could ultimately prove detrimental to political dialogue and consciousness.

About the Author

Owen Parr '18 is a Political Science and History concentrator and a staff columnist for BPR.