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Apr. 7 2010 - 4:46 pm | 305 views | 2 recommendations | 9 comments

Why 24-Hour News is Good, and ‘Live’ News Is Not

The blogosphere has lit up in recent days with opinions on why CNN’s prime time ratings have taken such a dive recently – down 40 percent for the first quarter, compared to a rise in Fox News ratings by at least 25 percent.

  • Politico surveys media commentators who largely suggest that because CNN has an impartial editorial line, it’s losing viewers to the left leaning MSNBC or the right leaning Fox, and it needs to “get more personality.”  Right now, it’s the “view from nowhere.”
  • The New York Times’ Ross Douthat says CNN should bring back “Crossfire” -  the debate program which allegedly fell at the hands of Jon Stewart -  because viewers like to watch on-air slugfests.
  • Slate says that because of media fragmentation, the relatively unbiased stance of its reportage makes CNN looks “at once like a niche product and a national institution.”

I, of course, will posit a new theory into the blogosphere:

A 24-hour news channel is a good thing. Live news, more often than not, sucks.

It’s that simple.

Despite its admirably neutral editorial stance, CNN appears to no longer report news. It simply airs talking heads, on the subject du jour.

On Wednesday, (April 7, 2010) CNN is dedicated in large part to coverage of the coal mining disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia, in which 25 miners were killed Monday, and there is an on-going search for 4 missing miners.

What we have in terms of news from CNN is live feeds from press conferences; lots of satellite interviews with talking heads related to the mining industry; the occasional live question-and-answer with a correspondent, standing in a field in West Virginia; and so far, exactly one news package.

With all due respect to the tragedy and the on-going rescue efforts, CNN’s coverage amounts to little more than blather.

Where is the reporting?

In days of yore, say, the mid 00’s and the 90’s, CNN would send one of its correspondents – let’s say Christiane Amanpour — with a cameraman and perhaps a producer into a situation, to film events, do interviews and develop visual sequences with people informed about the situation at hand, write a script, and shoot a piece to camera – placing herself on the scene and elucidating more about the situation. Then they would feed an edited “news package”  — a story — home, to be broadcast.

So far, with the mine disaster story, I’ve seen one very low-rent news package. There are no sequences – it’s “wallpaper” images cobbled together from feeds from local broadcasters. There is no stand-up to place the correspondent at the scene  – so he may not even be in West Virginia. It’s mostly just more talking heads, strung together.

What does the average person know about coal mining?

Where are the news packages on how coal mining communities are coping in a world that’s meant to be evolving toward alternative energy?  Where’s the news package from another mine that shows what a day in the life of a miner is like? Where is the news package about the community pulling together to support one another, or help coming in from other towns?

I’m sorry, but talking heads, Google Earth and computer graphics of mining techniques just don’t do it for me.  And that’s pretty much what CNN’s live coverage consists of.

If you look, for a moment, at the BBC World Service, it reveals an entirely different approach.

It too, is a 24 hour news channel, but it’s not hung up on the premise that “live” news is somehow the most compelling form of coverage. There are a number of news programs, focusing on different issues around the world, consisting of news packages, live Q and A’s with correspondents, and interviews, played several times a day -  and updated with breaking news. There are some talking head programs, but those, too, are interspersed throughout the day.

So if you tune in, at any time of day, you’re likely to see substantive reportage through news packages. If you want a talking head, you can see that too. (Admittedly, it’s slightly unfair to compare  BBC World Service with CNN domestic rather than CNN International, which I don’t see in New York.)

But the point remains.  CNN seems to think that “live” always means “superior,” when most of the time, the reverse is true.

After all, if you have to spend hour after hour filling up live air, then the quality of the information and analysis you’re going to impart is going to become ever more trivial.

When CNN’s day-time news programming consists, at times, of anchors reading Twitter out loud, should network execs really be so surprised that no one is tuning in to prime time?  (That’s where we can find Larry King asking Stephen Baldwin his opinion on health care!)

There’s simply a limit to how much dumbed-down trivia any of us can be expected to take – let alone, look forward to tuning into.

When Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landed the US Airways jet on the Hudson – for a certain amount of time, that was extraordinary live news – something CNN does well.

Then it devolved. As the coverage dragged on, Wolf Blitzer was saying things like, “Of course in an plane crash, you shouldn’t stop to get your things from the overheard compartment…. Let’s turn now to Person at the-Scene.”

Person at the Scene:  “What’s important to remember in these situations, is not to get your things from the overhead compartment during a plane crash… now I’m joined by Air-Disaster Analyst So and So” – who repeats the same line about overhead compar – enough already!

Can we cut to something else, please? Nevermind. I’ll change channels.

The problem is that the news package, reported by Christiane Amanpour? That would  take all day to shoot and edit, and it’d come to a total of about 2-3 minutes of  material.  It’s expensive – far more expensive than having a talking-head babble on camera for the same amount of time.

As Slate points out, the night of the coal mine disaster, CNN’s prime time coverage consisted of Campbell Brown, Larry King, and Anderson Cooper -  all with live programs -  discussing, at least in part, the mine disaster. That’s because it’s cheap. (Except for their salaries, I assume. My post on personality-driven news coverage in Haiti can be found here.)

With her recent departure from CNN, Christiane Amanpour, I would wager, saw the writing on the wall. The veteran of Bosnia, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, Iran, Rwanda among other places would have been able to clearly see that CNN is no longer a place for a correspondent who wants to report news.

The question isn’t why she bailed on CNN (despite the fact that she had her own program on CNN International, and could have coasted along as a personality.) It’s why, as a serious reporter, she didn’t bail sooner.

Yes, CNN appears to be broken. But the solution doesn’t lie in bringing back “Crossfire,” or in developing an editorial bias.

The solution lies in blowing off live news coverage -  in order to report the news.


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  1. collapse expand

    Great post. Part of why BBC World News is a must-listen piece of my every day (1 hr radio in the morning and sometimes TV news at night) is their different worldview.

    The U.S. — as you know having been an expat — loves to cover white guys with MBAs, i.e. Big Business, and tends to really handle it with kid gloves. There are no “labor” reporters anymore so even having a reporter with any good sources or decent understanding of the larger issues, let alone the mining industry or coal industry – from the *workers’* perspective? Unlikely.

    I’d like a better understanding why these dangerous jobs paying $25/hr are the only jobs for miles around — people don’t choose danger, but need to make a decent living.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks. What I appreciate about the BBC is that they assume a greater level of intelligence of their audience.

    There’s a mistaken belief that Americans only want news as entertainment. And I just don’t think that’s true.

  3. collapse expand

    Forgive me if I’m over-simplifying (and yes, you are right about the financial issues at play, absolutely!), but I think why CNN hired Erick Erickson (hence the name-calling and accusations of moving from “neutral” to “right wing”) and why their ratings are falling are both related to the same issue: Young folks don’t sit down to watch TV news. As the babyboomers reach into their 60s and beyond, TV viewers are a shrinking population of older folks, and older folks like Glenn Beck. They like Sean Hannity, and Bill-O. What all of those guys do is not exactly “fear-mongering” so much as it’s “feeding the appetite for fear” that exists in any older population. Fox News is doing great because they have tapped into the market for older folks in a way no other network dared.

    The more liberal younger generations are gravitating to blogs, Twitter, and websites. The Drudge Report is, after all, a proto-blog and bears little resemblance to a “proper” news website. TV is, in a word, completely doomed because they’re far less interesting, and far more time consuming, than the other forms of news Gen X and Millennials prefer to consume.

    Yeah, there’s crossover, sure. There are plenty of conservative blogs that get lots of traffic, but go find out how many regular viewers of those sites also watch Fox News regularly. Now ask a college student or young professional about their TV watching habits. Entertainment channels (TiVo’d) will be much higher on the list than MSNBC, Fox News, or CNN.

  4. collapse expand

    Good analysis of CNN’s woes. I haven’t watched it in a long, long time with any regularity, but comparing it to the BBC is (as they say in England) “spot on.”

  5. collapse expand

    SamJF – I see your point. Of course, Twitter and all that plays into it. But I think you may be painting with too large a brush. Maybe I am, too – but here goes:

    I think young folks would sit down to watch news, if the news were compelling.

    When something serious goes on, like an Iraq invasion, the amount of American viewership of the BBC, and American readership of British newspapers absolutely soars.

    It’s because of the assumption that the Brits are better at news. And to a large extent, they’re right.

    If there were more compelling American news – and by compelling I mean news packages, that are not dumbed down, as sadly, most American networks insist on – I think, there would be more faith in what the US news outlets want to achieve.

    And that’s another reason I like the BBC-WS model. You don’t have to sit down at 6pm every night. It’s updated throughout the day.

  6. collapse expand

    There’s some obvious reasons packages are better:
    First, they are stories with structure designed to bring the news into focus, and second, they are more interesting, thanks to being stories! Nobody needs to sit through the usual cable TV babel — a helicopter shot here, grieving relative there, back to the chopper, now the expert and another to “balance” the report, now some graphics to show the incidence of mine disasters over the past 100 years. Enough!

  7. collapse expand

    Thanks for the article – I’ve read it with great interest.

    Just a quick question – are you comparing CNN to BBC World Service (radio) or BBC World News (television)?

    Looking forward to your next blog.

    Melissa

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