Donald Trump is the Death Rattle of TV News
Weak Profits and Weaker Minds Sold us Out
In mid-March, The Upshot blog at The New York Times estimated that Trump has received almost $2 billion worth of free coverage from the cable and broadcast news networks. Today, that number is far higher. Trump’s out-sized share of “earned media” (in contrast to media you have to pay for, i.e. commercials) has many commentators asking whether or not his success stems from favorable network treatment.
Offended by this suggestion, CNN President and sometime Trump sidekick Jeff Zucker has insisted that his network followed the news rather than making it. Trump’s rise in the polls drove coverage, Zucker claims, not the other way around. Smelling a rat, pollster Jan van Lohuizen and I combined ratings data from the Television News Archive with publicly available polling data from Huffington Post Pollster. Zucker is full of it.
First, this is what Trump’s $2 billion in free media looks like:
Trump began dominating GOP mentions last summer, just as the absolute number of mentions skyrocketed. In other words, as the pie has gotten bigger, he’s received an increasingly bigger slice proportionately. That’s wall to wall coverage.
But what about Zucker’s claim that the polls jumped before coverage? Is there any truth to it? Um, no.
Trump received nearly a full month of breathtakingly elevated coverage from the cable and broadcast networks before his polling share started to move.
Zucker ought to know this. Because in the Mos Eisley Cantina that is the 2016 presidential election news cycle, CNN definitely shot first. The other networks quickly crowded in, but the guy who ran NBC Universal into the ground is either delusional or dishonest.
So what underpins this madness? Why do the networks send their reporters to Trump rallies, where they serve as props for the Jaundiced One and sputum receptacles for his thralls? Why are anchors, the apex of a career in TV journalism, debasing themselves for momentary recognition by Trump, as if his calling into the show were some kind of ratings methadone to ward off the coming night sweats?
CBS President Les Moonves, who unlike Zucker knows what a profitable television operation looks like, observed per The Hollywood Reporter that Trump’s run “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He continued, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun…I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
A cash infusion is a nice thing. But this attitude towards Trump is, of course, the very definition of short term thinking — and unlike most of those mentioned, Moonves knows it. The old broadcast news business model is fading faster than Sumner Redstone and no amount of Trump coverage between today and November will change that. According to the Los Angeles Times, Moonves’s industry-leading CBS saw revenue drop 2% from 2014 to 2015. Advertising revenue was down 5%, with radio advertising specifically dropping 7%. Meanwhile Comcast celebrated losing a mere 36,000 TV customers last year.
The Obama White House has effectively circumvented the broadcast channels to an unprecedented degree, producing and disseminating an official line in-house to supporters and opponents alike. Using social media and new media platforms, the modern White House no longer needs the broadcast news services to act as gatekeepers to the public. The next occupant of the Oval Office will have the same array of tools President Obama has had at his disposal. Combine these developments with the rising tide of cord cutting, and the future looks grim for broadcast news. Embracing Trump as a temporary antidote to a failing business model is temporary and cynical.
Until the model changes fundamentally, broadcast news will remain a great, hydrogen-stuffed dirigible drifting languidly towards a rendezvous with Lakehurst, New Jersey. Its captains seem hell bent on consuming democracy in the coming conflagration.