Cable News Channels Are Turn-offs

Most 24-hour TV cable news channels are a waste of time—too much punditry, celebrity coverage, and sensationalism, and not enough real news. Pro or con?

Pro: Too Much Fluff

If you’re just tuning into a cable news channel, here’s what you missed so far: Keith Olbermann’s self-indulgent ranting on MSNBC (GE), a crying Glenn Beck playing with a Jenga set while muttering his new favorite f-word (fascism), and Sean Hannity promoting the idea that the government will send young people to brainwashing camps on Fox News (NWS). In between, we’re learning all about the latest celebrity exploits and being warned that some sort of catastrophe is about to befall us, whether it’s from the business sector or the world of medicine. And should there be something with just a hint of scandal or potential tragedy to it, expect at least 15 hours a day devoted to the case.

What’s missing from this picture? The news. In pursuit of ratings, 24-hour news channels stacked up on high-profile pundits and padded their coverage with scandals and celebrity gossip straight out of tabloid magazines. Rather than report current events in politics in-person, they’ve delegated the job to their commentators who immediately attach their spin on the story as they deliver it, backed by a cavalcade of guests who can’t stop agreeing with them.

Instead of covering the latest developments in the world of science and technology, they’re shutting down these editorial desks to substitute them with their own versions of E! News. And when it comes to tragedy or scandal, they’re unstoppable, especially when they hand the story off to overzealous pundits who stretch them to mythical dimensions.

Today’s news networks excel in entertainment, political sophistry, and making the inconsequential into the story on everyone’s lips. But in the process, they’ve managed to mortally wound their original purpose: to keep their viewers informed.

Con: It Is What It Is

Before you call 24-hour news channels low-brow, consider dictionaries. If enough people say "irregardless" for long enough, Merriam-Webster will list it as an accepted word. (Actually, it already has.)

Cable news channels are democratic in the same way. They give the people what they want. And for Americans, that means serious news interspersed with Y-Lift cosmetic surgery and the latest homicide-committing celebrity. How many viewers could take a steady diet of world hunger, budget hearings, and global warming programs? Of course those subjects are more important than Lindsay Lohan’s switch back to men, but that doesn’t mean people can stomach hearing about them anytime or all the time.

“The Greeks and Romans had their pantheon of gods, and in the U.S. we have celebrities,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Everyone knows celebrities. It’s something we all have in common to talk about.”

And are cable news channels really that trashy? I turned on the Fox News Channel the other night and found news about swine flu, not Gossip Girl. And even though coverage of the Miss USA pageant’s Miss California has now expanded to include her silicone implants, Fox started out concentrating on her attitude toward same-sex unions—an important topic.

Yes, Jim Cramer’s style is over the top and self-indulgent on CNBC, but anything that makes the stock market more entertaining does viewers a favor. And if people want to cry about Caylee Anthony and Haleigh Cummings with HLN’s (TWX) Nancy Grace—whose ratings rose 74% from February 2008 to February 2009, according to Broadcasting and Cable—let them have their catharses. For those who find these networks frivolous, there’s always PBS, BBC, or C-SPAN.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Pat

I agree that all the cable news channels are a waste. They are all biased with an agenda. The sad part is that there are people I know who form their opinions based on what Bill O'Reilley or Keith Olbermann tell them is the truth. They all spin according to their audience, which gives them no integrity. They have redefined news to include subjects you used to see only in the National Enquirer (trash news). I really don't care what Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, or the new Miss USA think. I stopped listening to them, and surf news sites of all bias to form my own opinion. It saves me from the urge to slam my foot into the TV.

bunny

Personally, I think the media circus is quite interesting, and I feel lucky to have an option as to which one or whose show I tune into. Because I am capable of deciding for myself what I feel is right or wrong, I hardly think some sly news commentator who makes three times as much as I do in a year, is going to really be where I get my final thoughts on anything. The fact that even good or bad, they make this information and their own feelings about the news available for us to decide what we watch and listen to for ourselves is admirable.

Fortunately, I can pick and choose who may (or may not) share my own views and what I want to read, hear or watch. I actually appreciate the fact there is way more discussion on TV news channels--of issues that might otherwise not make it into the spotlight.

I enjoy the option of coming to know other people's opinions even if they differ from my own.

I would rather have the luxury that many other countries citizens do not have, and watch whichever news circus fits my fancy, thanks to the free press. Yet of course, this is just my opinion. You do have a choice tune in or tune out.

stephanie leisure

Fox News is the most impartial news station of all. Stop complaining, don't hook up cable or satellite, and save big money. Because the less "you" know, the better edge I have in the world. Hide under a rock; that's how Obama got elected.

All Together

Breaking news yesterday on CNN was that Miss California gets to keep her crown. They promoted coverage on the U.S. soldier that killed five of his comrades, but it took 20 minutes to get to the story. Before that, they did two follow-up segments on Miss California. I think that says it all.

Marianne Paskowski

Con,
I wouldn't know squat about Washington's move today to regulate OTC derivatives if I didn't watch CNBC, the 24-hour cable biz news net.

I sure didn't read anything about it up here today. Nudge.

JD Plus

Rather listen to cable, primarily Fox for actual news. Hannity is a political show, so I don't watch it.

I keep trying CNN, but they are so terribly biased, it's not worth it. They seem to try to attract those who "don't know any better."

If one wants to see what's going on for real, one can watch Congress on CSPAN. That's interesting to do and then see how the networks report is so different than what actually occurs. And, in the meantime, you can learn how ridiculous our Congress acts. It would be rather fun, if it wasn't so tragic.

gerrrg

Cable news? I say forget cable, period.

On the Internet, I can get the content I want, delivered when I want. With cable, I have to either DVR it or adjust my schedule to it. The 24/7 news operates the same way. On CNN Headline News, you still have to be tuned in at the right time to catch the content you want. MSNBC--same deal, DVR or catch it at the right time.

Forget that.

I'll just go online and watch videos of stuff that I want to view, when I want to see it. Daily Show at 8:00 am? Straight to Hulu. MSNBC shows? Heck, just go to MSNBC's own website, for goodness sakes.

You folks can argue the semantics of cable news; I'll just stream Keith Olbermann while I finish this comment, thank you.

Jeff B

It seems all TV programming follows a trajectory in which an initially good idea (like CNN or CNBC) is massaged by alleged experts until the ads become overwhelming in number and underwhelming in relevance, and the pundits become celeb-retards and TV personalities instead of journalists or reporters. It takes all of about 5 seconds on any given cable news show to determine whether the talking head is GOP or DNC. After that, you can predict exactly what each will say, so you might as well turn off the TV. And then there are guys like Kudlow, who just makes my skin crawl.

John S.

It is sad that real journalism is lacking. I remember as a kid when Bill O'Reilly was just a movie reviewer on Channel 8 in Dallas. Then he "discovered" he could make more ranting like a lunatic catering to extremism. Sad. Objective is not a word found in most cable TV newsrooms. Doing anything to get high ratings is the only goal, not providing accurate information. You'd think maybe these people would wake up and realize this is a major reason no one pays attention anymore and advertisers flock to other venues. If real journalists emerged again, then newspapers would increase readership, and radio and TV news would be listened to and watched. But continue with the muck and watch it all go down the toilet. Edward R. Murrow would be sick if he saw what passes for journalism today.

Mike M

Do you people write just for the paycheck? Or are these truly opinions?

Of course cable news are trash. And to Ms. Pro-News, you use the term democracy as an excuse for pointless and debased (and maybe I agree). You cite swine flu as a legitimate story when it is a perfect example of an overblown scary non-story. And same-sex unions "an important topic"? Another made-up scandal/controversy. Does it really impact anyone if the two guys next door get the legal rights married hetero couples do?

What about the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe? The elections in India? The meningitis outbreak in eastern Africa? Israeli, and Hamas war crimes in Gaza? Civil war in Sri Lanka? Lots of things happening out here in the world, yet we get the latest spat between a nobody named Perez Hilton and a Barbie-doll with augmented breasts.

MikeM

To the people whose candidates lost the last election: Get over it. You had eight years and look where we are. Give somebody else a chance to mess things up. Whatever is messed up in this world is not a result of President Obama winning. He just got here.

Stephanie up above said, "Hide under a rock: That's how Obama got elected." On the biggest voter turnout in recent history? Sorry, no partial points for you on that one.

Squeezebox

The reason cable news is so retarded is that people want it that way. If you want real info, you go to the Net and look it up. Of course, you have to know your source, because anyone can post anything on the Web.

BCR

Swine flu? The economy? All are made much worse that they really are by the 24-hour news channels. They should only be allowed to broadcast the news for 2 hours a day, and play soothing music the rest of the time.

Mike K

I think many people do want real news, but the never-ending quest for ratings pushes every news show to seek the same audience. Cable was supposed to give us more choices, but I see reality TV shows on every channel. This is why I read the news online. The news I want isn't available on TV.

Shorts-R-Us

I think most of you guys don't get cable news. It's mostly entertainment journalism. If you want the facts, you need to do your own research. Don't believe anything you hear or read.

Strategery

Anyone who considers mainstream news, especially the 24 hour cable news channels, anything more than entertainment is a fool.

There are a few fundamental flaws with the "news." One is an obvious political spin (left-wing for CNN and right-wing for Fox). Another problem is that they regurgitate news from the AP and Reuters, just like everyone else. Worst yet, all mainstream media is censored for fear of retaliation by governments or the businesses that buy ad spots (like pharmaceuticals). Finally, the mainstream media seeks to keep the masses in constant fear (just like the government), which serves to control the population and gain political support for unpopular laws (TARP, Patriot Act, etc.).

Mark R.

Mike M. says to get over it because your candidates lost the election. Is that what they practiced the last 8 years? Did his people get over it when they lost? I listened to 8 years of Bush bashing and even though he is gone, I still hear tons of it on certain news channels.

I thought this was a news channel debate, but someone has to turn it into something else. People have a right to say what they feel and think, Mike, regardless of who won or lost. After all, this is our country and government, not Obama's or anyone else's.

Blinx

In three minutes you can get more news from a copy of the NYT than you can get from a cable news program, where you might not come across any news at all in that time--or worse--misinformation.

Where cable news shines is in covering big news happening at the moment of interest to the masses (the onset of hostilities, 9/11, etc.). Otherwise it's a waste of time. And I'm not even counting all the commercial breaks.

So yes, cable news is in need of a change of format: more substance delivered in a fast-paced, compelling manner, targeted at a smaller though more influential market.

I don't expect it will happen.

Commie Stooge

One night, while channel surfing for news (at age 50, I'm old enough to remember "CBS Reports" and "NBC White Paper"), I came to the conclusion that what we need is a new news channel minus the punditry.

The BBC News channel is pretty good.

Apryl Chapman Thomas

If you don't like, don't watch it. Radical thought there, I know, but seriously if you don't like cable, no one is forcing you to watch it. I personally think MSM is a joke and therefore don't watch what was once considered respected nightly news. I tend to watch cable, because I want to.

It's a choice: Watch it or don't.

morton dest

The reality is, the mainstream media (let's just take the top 3 networks and the top 3 newspapers), are biased, inaccurate, and very sophomoric these days. The reporters are poorly educated in business, economics, foreign affairs, technology, and international history. However, they are well-groomed for far-left wing propaganda. The only alternative is to look for alternatives. One of the best news shows is the 6:00 EST News on Fox with Brett Bair (formerly with Britt Hume. I know most of you consider it biased, but it's really very even-handed and goes out of its way with the analysts (giving editorial commentary and debate) that straddle the ideological spectrum (and they are nice people with a sense of humor). We're looking at the end of an era in journalism, RIP 2008.

Larry M

I would like to find real news. I haven't found it yet, major networks, cable news, newspapers, magazines, etc.

I live in SE Oklahoma. No newspaper with national news is available. There are no newspapers on the weekends. Libraries get local publications.

I only have cable and Internet. Through 5-6 sources I can glean the news.

How about a source for news? No agenda. No "we know what people want." No "this story will boost ratings." My favorite quote from a publisher "never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

james M. Anderson

Most of the media outlets do not cater to my conservative positions; I don't even watch O'Reilly much less an Olbermann. They have some good information (Glenn Beck) and some good segments (the panel on Brett Baier), but the rest is fifteen section hysteria, run over and over.

Robert Laughing

These cable news shows remind me more of Beetle Baily cartoons. Sarge beats the schnell out of Beetle, and we see him lying there, all broken up, missing teeth, etc. That is what these "personality" presenters do to everything, newsworthy or not. They flog it, beat it, abuse it, then, present the same huckstered intensity over and over and over, like being trapped in Groundhog Day.

Most of you will never know of the joy of cutting your cable. Between the library, Netflix, and the great outdoors, we never see this nonsense anymore. Such a pleasure! (And you save a small fortune, every month, too.)

Tom A.

Cable news is no longer the news. Mostly talking heads. Fox news is the worst and most biased news out there. A total Republican propaganda channel. You get brainwashed watching it. CNN used to be good, but they have gotten away from the news. I decided to quit cable altogether. My local digital stations are much better. At least we have PBS.

Waleed Ahmed

I think 24 cable news channels are critical and important for today's world. They clearly help in keeping us up to date with what's going on in the world.

Just switch to one of these channels and you'll be updated within minutes. Yes, they are repetitive in some cases so in that case, see what you want to see and switch it off. Nobody is asking you to keep watching it constantly.

Tom T.

I think some people (John S. May 14, 11:34) have forgotten that while there definetly is bias today, for over 50 years there has been only one "flavor" of bias from the mainstream networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS). So, at least those of us who lean to the "right" have an outlet to at least hear another viewpoint. Before Fox News, we had very few sources. And despite whatever bias he has, Bill O'Reily alone has more listeners than MSNBC, CNBC, CNN combined. So, it must be the "preferred" bias (you'd think the networks would see that, but they don't change. That's what should scare everyone).

wordcarr

Don't watch TV for news. Everyone knows it is commentary, not news. There are many choices on line, The Economist, Bloomberg, Google, and on and on, why waste your time? Personally, I don't have a cable connection, and frankly it's not worth the money. The only TV news I consume is PBS, and that only in small amounts and never that woman that wrote a book about Obama.

SPFIX

I agree--most cable news is crap. The worst of it is that these stations follow one another off the cliff--these is absolutely no originality.

David

If you are getting your news off the Internet, then the cable sources of news are irrelevant and the sensationalizing they do of a few items doesn't have much impact over the majority who read the web for news. Cable news is goods for events like Katrina but for the most part now struggle to attract viewers.

Mike S

24-hours news is too much fluff, too much sensationalism, and a waste. Most media are becoming this way--put the porn star running for governor on the front page, then debate it endlessly, only to skip unbiased, critical reporting on real issues.

And it seems every news outlet has an endless stream of "experts" with nothing more than big mouths and an opinion often far removed from the facts, and only supporting their personal, corporate, or political agenda.

It also seems every news outlet wants to facebook, twitter, myspace, email, text message and iReport the news...we should brand this "Idiot News" because it mostly the uninformed trying to create news.

Sadly, there are real issues that the public needs to be informed about, the media needs to investigate, and no one is doing it anymore.

Hri

I agree. It is a huge disappointment. Free media should provide masses with news from all over the world without prejudice. Unfortunately this ritual has become obsolete. Adding to the misery is filling up the air time and our minds with completely nonsense gossip culture news. I have for sometime now seeked true news through radio and Internet. This allows me to impartially react and if needed research background on the news. Perhaps we should be self journalists.

Roger B

When traveling in the US I do watch CNN, FOX, and local news. Too often it is a talking head talking about nothing of importance. Giggling and throw-away comments have replaced hard facts. Style has replaced substance. Singing dogs have replaced serious discourse.
I compare that with Walter Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley of the 1960s and wonder what happened to the content of the news. Does nothing important happen in the world today? Or does celebrity crime and other puffery rank higher in importance? Or is it just cheaper to produce?

To people who do not live in the US, it is not a wonder why the people of the US seem to know so little about what happens in the next valley, let alone in the rest of the world. Someone (advertisers, media managers, etc.) chooses to not tell them.

Pete Martinez

What’s missing from this picture? The news. That really says it all.

Common courtesy is also missing. When two (or three or four) commentators talk over each other, it sounds like the Jerry Springer program.

My solution: recognizing what they were (trying) to say wasn't that interesting--then turning off the TV, picking up a book, or going to news.Google.com

pete dellinger

Personally, I would rather hear news about other happenings in the world and less about wardrobe malfunctions and utterly shameless political brainwashing. I like to watch BBC World News.

I feel like the media is trying to control our thoughts rather than give us the information to make our own decisions. Maybe every news story has a government editor behind it?

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