Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail. He is not related to Tucker Carlson.
U.S. media watchers were stunned this week when two big trees – Fox’s Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon – fell in the cable news forest.
Their surprise departures made a lot of noise, in large part because they were cloaked in scandal. Mr. Carlson was entangled in the high-profile defamation suit launched by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox over its 2020 U.S. presidential election coverage, which ended with Fox paying a US$787.5-million settlement. Mr. Lemon’s history of unfavourable characterizations of women came to a head with his widely publicized derogatory remarks about Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley being past her prime at 51.
While the media circus around these developments made for some time-wasting entertainment, do they really matter in terms of the American news landscape? Not really.
Like most television news these days, cable news is on the brink of irrelevance. Audiences are small – and old – as younger generations increasingly get their news from different social media platforms and streaming services. If you have children or young adults in your universe, you know this to be a fact: TV is as antiquated as rumble seats, landlines and common courtesy.
On any given day, viewership of cable news is the proverbial mosquito on an elephant’s rear end. The big three – Fox, MSNBC and CNN – together struggle to reach three million of a total U.S. population of 360 million, less than 1 per cent, according to Nielsen. Even in prime time, those three rarely top five million viewers in aggregate, with a smaller and smaller number of the younger viewers highly coveted by advertisers.
If there is a winner in this race to the bottom, it is Fox, which outpaces the other two handily in both total-day and prime-time viewership. CNN is the poster child for irrelevance, typically a very distant also-ran gasping to clear 500,000 viewers during the day and with prime-time ratings so low it trails not only its main news rivals but specialty cable channels such as HGTV, the History Channel, the Food Network and the Hallmark Channel.
Traditional network news doesn’t fare much better. Together, nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS reach about 18 million people on average, or about 5 per cent of the U.S. population. And they have been steadily losing ground every year as demographic dynamics shift away from them.
That means fewer than 6 per cent of Americans get their news from television. Of those, few are young people prized by advertisers.
The upshot for people like Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon is that while they are considered star talent, being a star on cable news is the epitome of being a big fish in a small pond. Perhaps that’s why they have become shriller and more outrageous over time, driving hard partisan agendas to please the faithful.
Mr. Carlson, who has received more criticism for this, has said as much. In texts made public during the Dominion case, he wrote: “Our job is not to provide news coverage. Not even close. Our job is to explain what things mean.”
And what things mean depends on the partisan bent of the audience. How far from the centre viewers stand varies, but the side they are on is unmistakable. Fox viewers skew right; MSNBC and CNN viewers skew left. The content and commercial business models follow.
Earnest consumers of news and information shake their heads and admit it’s often hard to tell cable newscasts from cartoon shows. Many worry aloud about the influence such rabidly biased network hosts have on consumers and voters.
Mr. Carlson, in particular, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and was regularly pilloried by critics for being racist and for downplaying the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, saying of the protesters: “These were not insurrectionists, they were sightseers.” Yet his was consistently the most-watched prime-time cable news show in America.
But serious people shouldn’t worry too much. The viewership numbers tell a story that should provide some comfort.
So, in the grand scheme of things, whatever happens at cable news outlets like Fox and CNN doesn’t really have much influence at all – but it can be good entertainment. And while many will miss the bombast of Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon, remember that SpongeBob SquarePants is just a click away.