Life after Election 2016: Cable newsers charting their course

Cable News TV's
The Hill staff

So, when this 18-month marathon of a presidential campaign season is mercifully over on Tuesday, barring a contested Bush-Gore 2000 result in a state near you, which cable news network stands to rise above the impending ratings plunge?

Yes, plunge.

As in, the-likes-of-which-we’ve-never-seen-kind-in-this-business plunge, starting around Thanksgiving.

{mosads}Think of it this way: Cable news will suffer the ratings equivalent in baseball of going from the World Series to spring training. And barring big news events — a terror attack, a mass shooting, a plane crash, a police shooting of an unarmed civilian, a natural disaster — the news is going to feel downright tedious when removing the tawdry, anything-but-issues-based saga heavily marinated in sensationalism that is Trump vs. Clinton.

So how big of a ratings drop are we talking?

It depends on who wins…

Nate Silver’s outfit, FiveThirtyEight, currently gives Hillary Clinton a 67 percent chance of winning. The good news for Donald Trump is that his chances of winning have doubled in the past two weeks and the winds of momentum appears to be at blowing at his back. Whether it’s enough to propel the Republican nominee to victory is anyone’s guess in this unprecedented election.

As you may have guessed, October ratings were cause for celebration for all the cable news networks.

At CNN, the network had its most-watched month in 11 years, even beating Fox News in the key demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds.

Fox News was tops in total viewers, not only over its cable news rivals but all of cable, including ESPN in a sports-heavy month.

MSNBC had its best month ever, with growth up 168 percent in the total viewers and 261 percent in the key demographic.

The primary reason: Trump. He not only compels loyalists to constantly watch, he attracts hate-watching from those who vehemently oppose his candidacy. It’s a perfect brew for boffo ratings.

If Clinton does win the White House, and Trump and all his rallies and provocative hourly soundbites go away, that’s bad news across the board of cable news networks, though to different degrees.

Here’s why: A Clinton administration will be the same as the one we’ve been absorbing for the almost 600 days in the form of her campaign — an approach that is cautious and risk-averse, transparency challenged and focus-group tested when public statements are made.

Shorter version: A Clinton administration will be a mostly boring administration — if it somehow stays out of trouble.

Fox News has performed exceptionally well during this current Democratic administration. Clouds of controversy have seemingly always following the Clintons since their arrival on the national scene 25 years ago. Now, with FBI investigations looming over Clinton that could extend well into her presidency, if elected, Fox will likely see the smallest decreases.

Another factor: Fox is better built for standard day-to-day news cycles thanks to its opinion programming, due to its deeper bench of authentic personalities. “The Five” is the best example of this personality/bench aspect.

Five years ago, Fox and Glenn Beck parted ways, before the summer of 2011. A gaping hole at 5:00 p.m. was left behind. The break-up was relatively quick for the business, so the network had to somewhat scramble to find a replacement.

A simple idea was proposed: Put five opinion people from Fox’s bench with five different backgrounds — a former lawyer, a demonstrative liberal, a finance guy, a former White House press secretary and a satirist — around a table to talk about stuff for an hour. It could be the big news of the day, cultural items, unicorns, their dog, whatever — just let it fly and see what sticks.

The chemistry worked, and “The Five” quickly became a top-five program and hasn’t waned since. CNN and MSNBC have tried similar shows without much success — not because of format, but because of who was sitting around those respective tables. Deepening the personality bench should be a priority once all of the temporary election pundit hires are no longer needed.

That’s not to say Fox still doesn’t have its challenges ahead. Its median viewer age is 68, compared to MSNBC’s median age of 63 and CNN’s 59. Once the election is over, a fair expectation would be a concerted effort to appeal to relatively younger viewers as the post-Roger Ailes era continues into its first full year.

For CNN and MSNBC, the challenge is substantially greater if a Trump administration doesn’t materialize.

CNN will likely continue its wise path of offering up more taped programming, such as documentaries. A look back on the ‘90s is a good bet following the compelling series on the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and programs like “Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain” and “This is Life with Lisa Ling.”

But day-to-day, non-breaking-news cycles will once again be a problem for the network unless it signs a big-name free agent, such as the potentially — but not likely, if recent reports are any indication — available next year Megyn Kelly. How big a problem depends on how many viewers that came to the network for the election stick around. It also matters how much of a pivot CNN makes in balancing the aforementioned taped programming and its regular offering during non-breaking-news situations.

MSNBC, as noted earlier, is also on a historic roll these days. Rachel Maddow is competing with, and periodically beating, Megyn Kelly at 9:00 p.m. Despite the occasional loss, Kelly still finished first in the key demographic for the month of October. “Morning Joe” will always be a solid choice as the show approaches its 10th anniversary next year.

The network’s pivot to a model more like CNN/Fox News of news programming as opposed to all-day opinion has brought stability to a once-struggling offering in the dayside.

But without a Trump to beat up on, it’s hard to see the network not repeating the year 2013, when it went from soaring in the last election year to limping after the votes were cast.

But, like CNN, perhaps viewers that like what they saw in the months leading up to this election will stick around for the aftermath and beyond. Time will tell.

A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Friday asked, “Who do you think the media, including major newspapers and TV stations, would like to see elected president: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?”

Of the 1,000 adults surveyed, 75.9 percent answered Clinton, while just 7.9 percent picked Trump. Slightly more than 16 percent of respondents chose either “neither” or “undecided.” Even a majority of Clinton supporters (51 percent) say the media is biased against Trump.

So while a majority of Americans agree with Trump that the media is piling on him like no other candidate before while rooting for Clinton, that might not necessarily be the case for news executives and the C-level folks in the parent companies that own the networks.

While many media members may loathe Trump, those who employ them would really love nothing more than all that Trump-fueled ad revenue and ratings gold to continue to roll in for the next four to eight years.

Concha is a media reporter for The Hill


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags 2016 presidential election Cable news ratings CNN Democratic Party Donald Trump Fox News Channel Hillary Clinton MSNBC Republican Party United States

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