There was a time when the ratings reports for broadcast TV in the U.S. merited close attention. Shows lived or died, or were parked somewhere obscure, because of ratings numbers. That was back around the time 55 million people watched the Academy Awards on TV. That was back before the cord-cutting phenomenon and before streaming services changed everything.
But the ratings remain relevant. Here’s an interesting number: Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes on CBS was the week’s No. 1 prime-time broadcast, drawing 9.27 million viewers. Those are staggering numbers for old-school TV. That they were delivered by a show so familiar and so disconnected from social-media hype is almost outlandish. So, what did 60 Minutes offer that was so attractive to viewers? Sunday’s edition featured Scott Pelley’s two-part report and extensive interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from Kyiv and a report on the carnage in the town of Bucha.
Those viewer-numbers come close to those for last year’s Academy Awards and, for context, NBC’s This Is Us, a hit with a with a devoted following, reaches about 5.5 million viewers a week.
The war in Ukraine has upended the highly competitive and much-discussed battles for viewers in the U.S. news arena. If you pay attention, you will hear a lot about Fox News being the champ in cable news, regularly drawing more viewers than CNN or MSNBC. Often the numbers are used to justify the strange ramblings of Tucker Carlson. But not everybody is watching cable news all the time.
Even the most avidly watched ramblings and rants on Fox News failed to come close to the numbers delivered by old-fashioned network news during the week after Russia invaded Ukraine. ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir was the most-watched show on broadcast TV that week, drawing an average total audience of 8.778 million viewers. That is easily more than Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight and new hit The Five, combined.
At times of crisis, whether it’s a weather disaster such as a hurricane, or a shocking event such as the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, or the largest invasion and worst fighting in Europe since the Second World War, people tend to turn to old-fashioned reporting, be it on CNN, 60 Minutes or the suppertime news on ABC.
This is understandable, to some extent. The on-the-ground footage, often from journalists who are in genuine danger, is dramatic and sometimes heart-scalding. This is one of those times when social media seems puny and petty. People want coverage that gives coherent shape to the news they are hearing about, and old-fashioned TV does that, in the same way that old-school newspaper reporting from war zones offers a perspective and humanity that nothing on Twitter can offer.
The other impact, perhaps, is that the culture wars in the U.S., in this age of spite, also seem puny and lack relevance. Hosts on Fox News in prime time have begun casually using the term “regime” to refer to the Biden administration, as if it was some sort authoritarian cult led by a strongman leader. This is an act normalizing anti-government hysteria. At the same time, it is notable that President Joe Biden has been using strong terms to describe what is happening in Ukraine. During a speech in Iowa on Tuesday, he touched on the issue of inflation by saying, “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away.”
When the travelling pack of reporters asked him about using language that includes “genocide,” Biden refused to back down. Neither the President nor his team are naive about language or about Vladimir Putin. Nor are they unaware that the gravity of the situation in Ukraine puts petty carping by Fox News and other right-wing outfits under the glare of realism. The current and often demented hothouse atmosphere of internal U.S. politics gets a blast of cold reality. It is clearly absurd for Fox News hosts and pundits to talk about other outlets, from The New York Times to CNN, being a stultifying media orthodoxy when in Russia there is only state-controlled media spreading propaganda.
It remains to be seen whether this bump of interest and impressive ratings for old-school TV news will have a lasting impact. But one thing is crystal clear: The Trump-era belligerence-politics and finger-pointing on what we are absurdly obliged to call “culture” issues look increasingly inane. And when a 60 Minutes mainly about Ukraine is the most-watched TV program of the week, something has definitely been upended.
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