War is Peace - Freedom is Slavery - Ignorance is Strength

Friday, October 01, 2004

Media Self-Perception

Tens of millions of Americans will watch the first of three Bush-Kerry debates and draw their own tentative conclusions as to who got the best of it. But perceptions can shift as commentators, analysts and spinners chew things over and selected sound bites are endlessly replayed on television, creating "moments" that may not have seemed particularly dramatic at the time.
Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post wrote that a couple days ago, before the debate.

I was talking to Mr. A before the debate, and he essentially brought up the same thing - talking about Gore's sighing, and how it had been heavily covered in 2000.

Well first off, let me just mention - yet again - that Gore WON the election in 2000 by 500,000 votes, and that was with a left-wing third-party candidate taking a couple million more off his pile, so despite what people on cable news talk shows might be saying, the American People didn't seem to have that big of a problem with Gore's infamous sighs.

Am I trying to say that when the cable news shows go 24/7 on some inane bullshit that people aren't affected by the overwhelming onslaught, and don't just accept it as conventional wisdom? No, not exactly. People are affected by what the cable news outlets put out, (polls of how viewers receiving their news solely from FNC view the world provide some good anecdotal evidence of this) but the fact is that the number of people actually watching cable news is tiny, and so no matter how loud O'Reilly and Scarborough shout, or how much slant FNC has in its coverage, most people will never hear or see it.

You want numbers? Oh, believe me baby, I got numbers.

All numbers of viewers - not ratings* - ratings are from August.

[*Nielsen ratings are percentage points of the total audience, which is close to a 100 million anyway, so it can be easy to confuse the rating with the viewership, since the numbers are on the same order.]

Primetime Cable News Ratings:
Fox - 2.1m
CNN - 730,000
MSNBC - 360,000
CNBC - 180,000

Cable News Personality Shows:
O'Reilly - 2.7m
Hannity - 1.8m
Scarborough - 330,000

Not that stellar. In fact, O'Reilly, who has the highest rated show on a cable news channel, is still losing in the ratings war to Spongebob Squarepants.

Now, let's see what happens when we compare cable news to another type of show that drives public perceptions, and also covers current evens - the late night talk shows.

Tonight Show (Leno) - 5.1m
Late Show (Letterman) - 4.9m
Late Night (Conan) - 2.2m
Late LateShow (Kilborn) - 1.6m
Last Call (Carson) - 1.4m
Jimmy Kimmel - 1.4m

Here we see that the two flagship shows both get almost double the audience of O'Reilly, and although I don't have the numbers, I would be willing to bet that it is a much more diverse, middle of the road audience. The rest of the late night shows, some of which come on at 1 and 2 in the morning, still get larger audiences than the likes of Hannity, and Scarborough, and still get a larger audience than the primetime audience for cable news. It should also be added that Saturday Night Live generally draws an audience of 6-7 million viewers, which is once again, a larger audience by far than any audience for any cable news show. While I'm on the subject, the one late night network news program, Nightline, had an audience of 3.4 million.

And where are most Americans really getting their news from? The networks. Let's have a look at those numbers.

NBC - 8.2m
ABC - 8m
CBS - 6.7m

That's right. 23 million people watch one of the primetime network news casts every night. Which would be, oh, roughly 7 times the audience for the cable news outlets combined.

So, is there an "echo-chamber" (probably mostly right-wing) that exists on the cable news networks? Maybe, but who really cares? The cold hard fact is that nobody is paying attention anyway except for diehard conservative O'Reilly fans, political geeks, and other members of the media. As a result, anytime somebody claims that this "echo-chamber" has the ability to affect public perceptions - let alone elections - they should probably be tarred and feathered, or at the very least, taken with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, what a candidate really needs to do, if they're worried about how the public perceives them, is try to avoid doing anything thing that can be relentlessly mocked on the late-night talk shows, and SNL, because that audience is a massively larger segment of the American People than all of the cable news shows.

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