Why can't we just ignore Cable News?
October 2, 2006 3:07 PM   Subscribe

On a typical day this year, Fox's audience is 845,000 while CNN's is 466,000.^ As a proportion of the US population (c. 300,000,000^), this is less than 1/300, or 0.28% (Fox) or less than 1/600, or 0.16% (CNN). How come they wield so much influence?
posted by dash_slot- to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Does the CNN number count both CNN and Headline News?

I think the only think you can say about statistical comparisons is that you can get numbers to say almost anything.
posted by SpecialK at 3:09 PM on October 2, 2006

Discussions aside of the relative influence in politics of those who care enough to watch the news, consider that the statistic you cite doesn't imply that there are only 845,000 people that watch ever. Those channels' "regular viewership" (that is, people who turn to that channel for their news) will be far higher, but only a small proportion actually watch on a given day.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 3:17 PM on October 2, 2006

1. How much influence do they really wield? Relative to what? How would we actually know? etc.

2. Usual stuff about business/political leaders tuning in at a much higher rate than the general population.

3. Journalism is a fairly incestuous profession. How does a journalist know if something is a story? Other journalists think it's a story. How do you know what other journalists think? etc.

(it is often assumed that e.g. the New York Times drives the agenda of other media outlets, but the Times didn't make JonBenet an ongoing national story...)
posted by Urban Hermit at 3:20 PM on October 2, 2006

Comparing it to the total population is pretty meaningless. That includes infants, children, teenagers, etc. It would make a lot more sense to compare that number to the total number of people watching TV at the time, or use the actual Neilsen ratings.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:20 PM on October 2, 2006

Like, duh, nobody else!!

Its how their viewers influence the rest of the *voting* population.

For example, Fox's further energizing an energetic republican might indirectly produce more republican votes among their friends.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:21 PM on October 2, 2006

The vast majority of Americans don't really care about politics except when it gets personal (take the backlash on Terry Schiavo, when the pols seemed almost startled that John Q. Public didn't like the idea of the government deciding how they live and die). Even in polls and votes, their perspectives tend to be skewed by brief exposures to news, which consists of the bite-size portions of headlines, news blurbs, etc.

FOX, CNN, et al wield influence because those making and executing the laws live in an echo chamber where their only connection to "the American people" is through the talking head pundits who've anointed themselves as oracles and gateways to "conventional wisdom". A typical lawmaker gets far less face time with their constituents than they do with other lawmakers, the beltway circle of lobbyists, pseudo-journalists, and news/political "personalities", and other opportunistic hangers-on. The same people hosting these news shows then meet the movers and shakers are cocktail parties after work, and thus the opinion of those on the teevee seems important to the actual elected leaders.

Plus, a lot of people in the HR in particular are kind of dumb, and thus easily influenced by smarter people with more money. And those people own FOX, CNN, etc along with their major advertisers... =)
posted by hincandenza at 3:23 PM on October 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's just the viewers during primetime. Many people watch outside of primetime. Here's some further discussion of ratings between CNN and Fox.
posted by Humanzee at 3:24 PM on October 2, 2006

"Influence" isn't just about who watches Fox and CNN; it's about who listens to people who watch Fox and CNN. News that appears on the cable networks "spreads out", because journalists, columnists, politicians, bloggers, and comedians (I'm serious about that last one) watch at least one of the channels. If CNN or Fox cover something, somebody else is bound to "run with it".

(Just to nitpick the statistics a bit: Comparing their audience to the whole U.S. population probably is unfair. You should be comparing their audience to the population that can affect change. The CIA World Factbook, for example, says that about 20% of the U.S. population is 14 years old or under. It doesn't matter it that 20 percent doesn't know what's going on in America, because they're practically powerless. Furthermore, the Census Bureau says only 64% of the adults eligible to vote actually voted in 2004. See where I'm going? If we were actually able to calculate a number for "people who actually do something", the cable network's influence probably wouldn't seem so mysterious.)

On preview: I've just written a 2-paragraph "ditto" post.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 3:29 PM on October 2, 2006

Best answer: How come they wield so much influence?

Let's unpack it a bit. I don't think it's controversial to say that Fox News and certain opinion-driven shows on other networks -- Nancy Grace, Lou Dobbs -- help amplify and shape the terms of the national news 'debate' beyond their live audiences. It's also fair to say that CNN and Fox are speaking to different demographics, but that those demographics include people who are part of the news or politics business.

My suspicion is that their 'influence' is overstated, or at least overestimated by people outside the US. While there's much talk of declining viewership of the evening network news, it's still the place that most people go for national coverage. Weekend magazine shows like 60 Minutes have far greater influence. And even more people stick with local broadcasts. By analogy, the Washington Post sells about 700,000 copies a day, and then New York Times about 1 million. USA Today dwarfs them in its sales.

In short, the average American watches the local news bulletin, reads the local paper, and takes only a passing interest in national coverage. But the people who shape the national political discourse read the NYT and WaPo and watch the cablenewsers because national politics, for the most part, is driven by a very small group of players whose jobs depend upon that amplified discourse. Eventually, though, the tropes of the cablenewsers and big newspapers filter into local bulletins and local papers because their editors (or their managing editors) are watching them.
posted by holgate at 3:30 PM on October 2, 2006

One further point: the cablenewsers are influential to the extent that, with so much time to fill, they love stories that fit certain templates: the 'missing white woman', the 'shark attack', the court case with self-proclaimed expert commentators -- in essence, anything that can be padded ad nauseam with lurid and/or bullshit speculation and lots of video footage.

So stories that would otherwise be local in nature can get catapulted into the national spotlight, primarily because they have a gawping-at-car-crash news value.
posted by holgate at 3:39 PM on October 2, 2006

Because a good percentage of those 845,000 are journalists, bloggers, radio personalities and politicians. It's a snowball effect. Well into the 90th percentile of Americans care very little about following national news on a regular basis, but when they do no matter what medium they turn to the influence of cable news is felt because most people who deliver news are lazy and instead of finding their own news they steal from each other and add their own innuendo. There are very few originators of news left on tv. The people who do actual journalism are relegated to book, magazine writers and fewer and fewer newspaper journalists, unfortunately much less of the public pay attention to them. Instead they look to their favorite tv personality to give them their spin on the book or magazine article. The farther away you get from the source the less truth you get.
posted by any major dude at 4:07 PM on October 2, 2006

Urban Hermit wrote...
1. How much influence do they really wield? Relative to what? How would we actually know? etc.

I think Urban Hermit has it here. The news media loves to print/tell/show stories about how important it is.

(If you're of a Buddhist bent, consider it to be analogous to your ego -- always has a story for everything, claims to have tremendous influence over everything you do, and ultimately is completely without substance)
posted by tkolar at 4:12 PM on October 2, 2006

People in the White House watch Fox News.
posted by russilwvong at 5:41 PM on October 2, 2006

I think the only think you can say about statistical comparisons is that you can get numbers to say almost anything.

I'd just like to point out the emptiness of that platitude. It really never serves to prove or disprove anything in any debate; only to muddle it further. No, you can't "get numbers to say almost anything." You can claim the numbers mean things they dont, but the fundamental data isn't at fault (assuming the study was done correctly). All this ever really takes is more than a passing interest in the topic to doa few minutes of research to find out whether or not the representation is accurate.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 6:04 PM on October 2, 2006

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