The headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sums up the story’s coverage in countless other news outlets: “CNN’s ratings continue to fall; Fox News has best quarter in network history.” The juxtaposition of the two networks, their different fortunes, the suggestion that the success of the one is at the expense of the other. But maybe these media giants aren’t even fighting for the same audiences, maybe they’re not even competing with each other, at least not in the straightforward way we’ve been thinking about it lately.
At least, that’s what Dan Kennedy argues over at Media Nation today: “CNN posits itself as a news alternative to the partisan, opinion-driven talk-show line-ups offered by Fox and MSNBC. In that sense, maybe the three cable news nets aren’t really competitors at all.” To take a step back for a moment: the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has reported that “the ratings rivalry between the Fox News Channel and CNN is often misleading,” because “on any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox.” CNN actually reaches a wider audience than Fox, it’s just that viewers stay on Fox longer. That means that more people get their news from CNN than from Fox. So while Media Matters can claim that CNN has been “hemorrhaging viewers for some time now and have demonstrated little success in stanching the flow,” the channel is still profitable and shows no signs of going down in flames any time soon.
They could fail, however, if they continue to cut their newsgathering capabilities in order to spend more on mimicking their competitors. That’s what they seem to be doing by hiring Erick Erickson, the colorful editor behind the blog redstate.com who has suggested that “ugly feminists” should “return to their kitchens” and only yesterday said that, if a census worker comes to his house, he’ll “Pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door.“
Maybe, as Kennedy suggests, CNN does have a future, even one along the lines of their current model. Sure, they have to scale back, but the cuts could be to the more left/right opinion programs that viewers already turn to Fox and MSNBC to see. Then they could focus on their strengths as a leaner newsgathering organization. The niche is there, the problem is rethinking the mission.