'Persuadable' voters are key to the 2020 election — and the non-screaming news industry

'Persuadable' voters are key to the 2020 election — and the non-screaming news industry
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They are like a long-forgotten tribe, deeply shrouded by some verdant interior, suddenly discovered and brought out into the light. They are called “persuadables,” voters in these divided times who might actually switch parties and cast ballots the other way.

Their discovery could revive another declining clan eulogized a bit too soon: Network television newscasts.

Long-held media wisdom claims that modern political polarization has been aided and abetted by cable news – 24-hour scream-fests that speak only to the converted. No one there ever ventures across the line to check out the other side.


But when presidential candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on difference with Warren: she's a capitalist 'I'm not' Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren MORE (I-Vt.) broke with Democratic Party orthodoxy and appeared at a Fox News town hall, the results were record ratings and an audience in the auditorium that seemed open to — if not outright supportive of — some of his proposals. They looked, well, persuadable.

That opened the floodgates. Other Democratic candidates lined up to go on Fox; House Democrats even spent a day learning how to perform successfully on President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani says he is unaware of reported federal investigation Louisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff Lawmakers focus their ire on NBA, not China MORE’s favorite news channel. Over at MSNBC, anchor Stephanie Ruhle led a discussion with two Republicans, former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy MORE and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. No one screamed. No heads exploded.

The truth is that these persuadables have always been hiding in plain sight. A 2017 study revealed that 18 percent of Republicans surveyed watched CNN in addition to Fox; a study from 2014, admittedly pre-Trump, showed that 18 percent of MSNBC’s viewers were self-described conservatives.

But if persuadables are the new demographic darlings for political news and political parties, no single media institution may benefit more than the half-hour major network newscast.

Despite a drop in ratings and the constant shadow of vultures circling overhead, evening news shows still draw a combined 27 million viewers each night — a much bigger number than cable. But the genre is undervalued due to, among other reasons, its reputation for being comparatively tame for modern times.


That’s because loud, brash polarization is tough for broadcasting, whether in news or other programming. At networks, there’s little incentive to choose sides: It’s unwise journalistically, and doesn’t help you garner the largest possible audience — which is still the main economic goal, the “broad” in “broadcasting.”

That’s something I dealt with for years as a network programmer, while cable got all the attention. There were always meetings about developing new programs with “a stronger point of view” that could rival cable for “buzz” — but every time I was pitched a project headlined by someone known for his or her aggressive political stance, the decision ultimately was made to go in another direction. The risk: You’d be scaring away as many viewers as you might attract, guaranteeing ratings failure. Instead, we searched for a magic middle between bland and offensive, something that was a little different, a bit edgy, but not way outside the box. That’s broadcasting.

And that’s a place where persuadables can safely gather. Even though there have always been complaints from some sectors about liberal bias on the major networks, 30 percent of Democrats, 28 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans surveyed told researchers they watch network news regularly.  

Viewers in that same study said they want to move on from commentary and opinion, preferring a program focused on “facts with some background and analysis.” Now, yes, we’ve all come to learn the word “fact” can mean different things to different people — but there appears to be a genuine attempt by the audience to find some place to simply get the news, along with some context.

That’s a pretty good description of an evening newscast.

Perhaps sensing this shift, my former company is permanently moving the “CBS Evening News” to Washington this summer, and placing Norah O’Donnell — who has a strong political reporting background — in the anchor chair.

Media experts, researchers, campaign managers and pundits should tune in to her — and to David Muir and Lester Holt. Chances are their programs will focus on facts with some context. No one will yell or interrupt, no fingers will wag, no lectures will be given.  

Who knows? Vultures may stop circling; eulogies may get tucked away. Because these days, that kind of news just might seem bold, fresh — and a little outside the box.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.