Tuesday, January 22, 2002

The News War
In any business, there are two basic approaches to growth: You must either find consumers who aren't yet being reached by your product, or win consumers away from your competitors. Grow the market, or grow market share. Most businesses do both, to some degree. Some are forced more towards one or the other strategy by their particular market.

Take soft drinks, for instance. In the United States, especially in retail areas, it's hard to find a place worth calling a place where there's no cola machine of some kind. There are no American frontiers where colas can't be had. Thus, if a soft-drink bottler is to grow its domestic business, it must do so at the expense of some other beverage.

Which brings me to cable news, a fizzy and frothy mess if ever I saw one. I can't seem to find who said this, so I apologize for stealing this insight, but it's so darned true: In the absence of any real news from the Front, the continuing machinations of the cable news channels are the best show in town.

It's old news by now (so to speak) that the CNN brothers are redesigning their respective "looks", not-so-subtly copying what they perceive to be the Fox "look". It's also old news, and I think a near-universal opinion, that whoever is responsible for the busy design of the new CNN Headline News should be shot. Or, at the very least, forced to watch it. At length. (Is it true that picture-in-picture-capable televisions implode when the viewer tunes to CNN-HN? And does anyone watch CNN-HN for local weather coverage?)

The flaws at CNN are more than skin-deep. They knew that: That's why they laid off so many of their staff early last year. It was an exodus so dramatic that it inspired its own web site, Ted's Turnovers, to chronicle the ongoing downward spiral of CNN. (Ted's Turnovers was an entertaining site, while it lasted: They're closing down, but even their goodbye message is worth a read.)

They ditched some of their senior news-gathering and reporting staff in order to hire actress Andrea Thompson, implying that they think their problems all stem from not being pretty enough. Just the right move to revive the form vs content argument, driven by ever-more-vocal viewers with a new medium in which to express their skepticism (this one). Unrepentant or deaf -- or perhaps, correctly judging their audience -- they just acquired lovely Serena Altschul from MTV as well.

The issue was brought to a boil by Paula Zahn -- not her, and not her jumping networks from Fox to CNN, but CNN's marketing. Specifically, That Promo, which aired on a smirking Fox's news programs more often than it actually aired on CNN. Oh, I believe them when they insist it was actually a needle scratching across grooves, not... what you thought. I'm sure that's what the sound effects CD said it was. It almost doesn't matter.

Do you think Zahn would have approved of the spot without the sound effect?

Who did approve of it, anyway? Nobody edited it, nobody produced it, nobody previewed it, it Just Happened. Spontaneous television. As if the Air Itself couldn't contain its enthusiasm for Paula's, er, credentials. Doesn't this raise some interesting questions about everything else that airs on CNN? Shouldn't it? (Has anybody else noticed that none of the news networks run production credits?)

The Truth about Television: Pretty people get preference. (Duh.) Andrea, Serena, and Paula all have something that Peter, Dan, and Tom don't have. This is the elephant in television's bedroom, the thing that controls everyone's decisions that no one dares speak of. (Of course, Peter, Tom and Dan have job security. Andrea, Serena, and Paula only have jobs until their credentials begin to sag. But there's always another Laurie Dhue waiting in the wings.) (I just heard: Connie Chung to CNN? How can she be a "higher-profile personality" in need of a "huge visibility boost"?)

Meanwhile, Fox News is facing a crisis of its own. Now, I believe Roger Ailes when he says he's trying to live up to his network's motto, "Fair and Balanced". But his argument is being refuted by his own listeners, who are protesting (in large numbers and with strong language) his recent hires, known liberals Geraldo Rivera and Greta van Susteren.

And we mustn't count MSNBC out, either. After watching the other two poach each other's talent (using the word loosely), MSNBC has clearly elevated the average IQ of the room by landing Alan Keyes to a weeknightly hour, "Alan Keyes is Making Sense," a silly name for a potentially fascinating show. Keyes will have the 10:00pm hour opposite the charisma-free Aaron Brown on CNN and van Susteren on Fox. Between that and his lead-in from current hot property Ashleigh Banfield (who has really bloomed as a correspondent in the last six months, with or without, ah, credentials), Keyes just might collect a significant audience by default.

And if he does, I'll forgive him for borrowing my color scheme for his show graphics.

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