Will cable news collapse, too?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard
They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash
They got Junior but they don’t have Hank.

-“Long Time Gone” by Darrell Scott

Business Insider’s Henry Blodgett thinks the collapse of broadcast television is imminent. “The only time we watch TV news live is when there’s a crisis or huge event happening somewhere,” he writes. “If not for live sports, which are consumed by exactly one member of our household (me), there is no way we would be paying for cable TV or any other kind of traditional pay TV anymore.”

I suspect there are a lot of Blodgetts out there just waiting to pull the plug on their cable, just as they pulled the plug on their home phones. And while he doesn’t directly address cable news, it stands to reason their fortunes are tied to this trend. This is probably a good thing. For a variety of reasons, cable news has become increasingly unwatchable.

Change is the only constant in life. We’ve witnessed the decline of other media, including radio and newspapers. Terrestrial radio — pushed by program directors and the suits in the advertising departments (to the chagrin of disk jockeys) — commercialized itself out of relevance. What worked when they had a monopoly ceased working once they didn’t. (After all, why would consumers listen to the music you feed them when they can listen to commercial free music via XM or Spotify or Pandora or their iPod?)

Just as terrestrial radio eschewed deep cuts in favor of playing the latest pop song over and over again, the recent trend in cable news has been “dumbing down” and “sexing up” — rather than providing substantive discussions. It used to be that you got experts or seasoned journalists on air, and let them talk sort of like you would at a dinner party. That is rarely the case these days (even when good guests are invited on — and accept the invitation — they are seldom allowed to, you know, talk.) Cable news has become like commercial radio. They play what they think the masses want — which means a helluva lot more Bryan Adams than Ryan Adams.

This trend, of course, developed because it worked. Conservative cable news has largely succeeded — in terms of ratings, at least — by sprinkling in plenty of attractive young women amongst fiery talk radio-style pundits. Meanwhile, the overtly liberal cable news outlets have not fared as well — perhaps partly because they were late to the game in terms of fielding this same formula (though they are catching up.)

(Liberal cable news has done one thing which may pay dividends later — and that is to promote their young wonks. The so-called “Boy Banders” may be patently un-sexy to anyone outside DC, but having been given a platform, they are now positioned to be tomorrow’s experts. But even overtly liberal news outlets — with their penchant for wonks — finally sold out to the hoi polloi — fielding their own brand of vapid, fire-breathing progressive hosts and guests.)

So where do smart political news consumers go? C-Span airs some terrific stuff, but they also subject some of the smartest political experts in America to caller’s questions about such pressing issues as fluoride in the water. Sure, there’s still Charlie Rose, but you can watch him on the web. There are some other bright spots, of course. More and more, I have gravitated to reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and watching alternative long-form commentary on outlets like Bloggingheads.TV.

As technological changes collides with what I believe to be increased dissatisfaction with programming, the market seems ripe for change. What’s stopping The Daily Best or The Huffington Post — or whoever — from producing an hour a day of content that could rival cable news — both in terms of quality production, hosts, guests, and content? Once viewers are streaming their content anyway, why should it matter if cable or the internet.

As more and more people opt for Netflix and Hulu, and cancel their cable TV subscriptions, cable news might simply be collateral damage. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious fear of this, but I suspect that what happened to print media will eventually happen to them — which is to say the best won’t go out of business, per se — but that things may flatten. If radio isn’t the best model, then perhaps the better metaphor is newspapers.  (People still go to NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com — but are those legacy outlets that much better than say Politico or HuffPost or the Daily Caller?)

The revolution will be live streamed.

UPDATE: A smart commenter wonders why I didn’t mention Glenn Beck. This is a good point — GBTV is becoming wildly successful. It’s a sign that public personalities are becoming less dependent on cable networks, and sort of proves my point.

Matt K. Lewis