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Cable Content Analysis

Content Analysis

The most notable finding here is that cable news has all but abandoned what was once the primary element of television news, the written and edited story. In doing so, it has de-emphasized the story package’s strengths, namely the chance to verify, edit and carefully choose words and pictures. The stress in cable news is on mmediacy and cost efficiency of the live interview and unedited reporter stand-up.

Next, rather than covering a comprehensive menu of issues, each morning the cable channels settle on a limited number of core stories that are then repeated, and only occasionally substantively updated, as the day proceeds. The level of repetition on cable is enormous. The level of updating is minor.

There are four distinct parts to the cable day — morning news, daytime, early evening and prime time — and each has different qualities. Prime time is remarkable for the fact that, for channels label themselves news, it is almost totally bereft of newscasts. If viewers wanted a comprehensive prime time survey of the national and international news of the day on these cable channels, only CNN offers such a newscast, and then for only one hour of its prime time schedule.

While there are differences among the three cable channels, the similarities in how they are put together and what they choose to cover stand out.

The dominant impression is that managers in the control room, rather than the on-air talent, function as the real agents of influence in cable. They decide what pictures to air, what stories to cover, where to go next, who gets to express expert knowledge and analysis. They define the personality of the product.

To get a sense of the nature of cable news, the study looked at five sample days for the three cable news networks, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and studied those five days intensively, for 16 hours each day, or 240 hours of programming, some 5,570 story segments.

This intensive approach, examining days in depth over many hours, allowed researchers to get a sense of how cable news is constructed throughout the day. More conventional studies have tended to examine short periods of time on cable, usually a single program, over a longer number of days, the way that traditional network evening newscasts are studied. This conventional approach, while useful, leaves too much of the cable day unexamined.

For this study, instead, one of each of the five weekdays was selected at random from May to October of 2003.1 For those dates, our partner, ADT Research, publisher of the Tyndall Report, monitored and coded the cable programming continuously from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time.2

The Abandonment of the Written Edited Story

The most striking finding is the means by which cable news now communicates information.

Of the 240 hours of programming studied, only 11 percent of that time and 8 percent of the stories consisted of written and edited packages.

This makes cable news markedly different from most other forms of journalism, including nightly news, television documentaries, newspapers, the Internet or even local television. On the commercial broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts, packages occupy 84 percent of their editorial time.

Instead, 62 percent of the time on cable is conducted in “live” mode. Most of this is conducted through interviews, usually by anchors. A third of the cable news day (32 percent) is devoted to interviews conducted with newsmakers, outside experts, celebrities or ordinary people. Another 9 percent is devoted to question-and-answer sessions with the cable channels’ own in-house analysts, experts and staffers.

Story Types on Cable News
Percent of All Time

Percent
Edited Package
11%
Interviews
41
Standups
21
Anchor Reads
15
Live Events
8
Banter
3
External Source
1

Total may not equal 100 due to rounding.

What then is the reporter’s role on cable news? Mostly it is to do live reporter stand-ups–continuous talking, unedited and unpunctuated by soundbites from any other source. In all, reporter stand-ups made up 21 percent of the entire cable news hole.

This tendency is drastically different than commercial nightly news. There live stand-ups take up only 2 percent of the time.

A further 15 percent of cable time is spent with anchors narrating video or doing “tells,” reading copy without pictures.

Live events themselves, such as those covered by C-SPAN, are not a significant part of cable news, at least during the time-period sampled. Only 8 percent of the time in the sample was made up of live events.

Crosstalk, or banter between anchors or between anchors and correspondents, was negligible (3 percent) and almost entirely confined to morning programming.

Taken together, this emphasis away from edited stories and toward interviews and stand-ups has two important implications.

One is it de-emphasizes the role of the reporter. Cable is increasingly becoming an anchor medium, in stark contrast to where it began, and this is particularly true in the morning and evening.

Second, the majority of time on cable is something close to a first draft, or in the case of interviews, news gathering in the raw. Both live interviews and stand-ups are produced without any chance to edit, and usually with limited or no time to write.

Correspondents talk either extemporaneously or from notes on a legal pad, something akin to what dictating once was in newspapers. On TV, however, there is no rewrite man or woman on the other end of the phone to clarify and verify. In a sense, that is left to the audience.

The average reporter stand-up was 130 seconds, a little over two minutes, and just 12 seconds shorter than the few edited packages. Talking for that length of time without interruption, usually extemporaneously, says researcher Andrew Tyndall, tends to make talkativeness and telegenicity major virtues for cable correspondents. Traditional journalism skills such as writing, editing, cultivating sources andwriting to pictures tend to become less important. Indeed, the requirement that reporters be so frequently available during the day to do these repetitive stand-ups necessarily eats into the time that they otherwise would have to be in the field collecting information and talking to sources. Everything is filtered through the reporter since audiences cannot hear or see sources for themselves in soundbites.

On the relatively few occasions when cable stations presented written and edited packages, they tended to be less densely packed with information than on broadcast nightly newscasts. For instance, on the three commercial networks and the PBS “NewsHour,” 47 percent of the stories cited at least two separate named and identified sources, while only 24 percent of stories on cable had that level of sourcing.

Cable packages were also slightly shorter than on network nightly news, with an average length of 142 seconds, versus 164 for nightly news on broadcast television.

Though less densely sourced than network packages, packages on cable, rare as they were, were still more heavily and clearly sourced than cable’s more dominant methods of communicating — interviews or stand-ups. Take, for instance, the difference between packages and reporter stand-ups on cable. Only 15 percent of cable stand-ups cited at least three fully identified sources, whereas 35 percent of their edited packages contained that density of sourcing. Furthermore, any source cited in a stand-up is not quoted in the form of a soundbite that audiences can see and hear for themselves. Instead, their words are characterized second-hand by the reporter.

Average Story Length on Cable News
Length in Seconds

Seconds
Edited Package 142
Guest Interviews 249
Corresp. Interviews 194
Stand-ups 130
Anchor Reads 30
Live Events 558

Interviews, the primary and most detailed means of communicating in cable, averaged more than six minutes in length. They also offer audiences the chance to assess a source for themselves. The problem, though, is that that may be the only source heard from in a piece, the only point of view offered.

Even these totals for named and identified sources, however, slightly overstate the degree to which cable reporters engage in first-hand reporting. We took a three-day subsample to examine the extent to which the cable news networks use other journalistic organizations as sources rather than checking with primary sources directly. We found that 11 percent of all named and identified sources cited by the three cable news channels were actually other news organizations (CNN cited 144 news organizations among its 1,131 separate sources; Fox News 104 of 1,049; MSNBC 108 of 997).

Immediacy and Updating

The second major finding about cable is the limited breadth of the cable news agenda and the limited amount of updating.

Considering all the time cable news has to cover global developments across any number of beats and subject areas, each day’s news agenda was narrowly defined, determined in the morning and largely just replicated thereafter.

In the course of 16 hours of viewing starting at 7 a.m., three-quarters of the stories on cable throughout the day (73 percent) are the same matter turned to repeatedly.

The cable channels would have you believe that these stories they turn to again are developing stories they are following and updating through the course of the day. It turns out that is not the case.

The content analysis found that only 5 percent of the stories returned to during the day contained substantive new facts.

In other words, 68 percent of the stories on cable news were segments that repeated the same information without any meaningful new information.3

Sometimes these stories are returned to with peculiar urgency, with labels describing them as breaking news, despite little of substance changing. This seemed to be particularly the case if there was a new picture of some kind. It is not unusual, for instance, to see moments, such as one in December on CNN, when a Santa Barbara, Calif., prosecutor was followed getting out of his car, walking up the sidewalk and into a building without saying a word. Yet the footage carried the header “Breaking News: Jackson Prosecutor Arrives at Court Building.”

Such images are often little more than what television people call “B-roll,” the raw footage that camera crews shoot through the course of the day, being put out on the air live. What were once the raw ingredients that made up journalism, the grist that was ground down into on-air material with the chaff discarded, now are the product. It is the television set as “feed room.”

Other times, the cable channels decide to repeat stories but make them look new. They return, for example, to another live stand-up by a White House correspondent who again delivers reaction to economic figures released earlier in the day, even though the reaction is the same one the correspondent described an hour earlier and could just have easily have been taped and rerun. This repetition looks more immediate because it is live and because the correspondent does not explain that the reaction came earlier in the day. The anchors often introduce these segments as going back for “the latest” rather than as repetition. It takes some decoding by the audience to recognize that there is nothing new here.

Topics

What is the news agenda on cable?

Here conclusions must be tentative because the study examined a large number of hours, but only over five days. The extreme frequency of story repetition in a day, moreover, makes the diversity of topics even more limited.

Most striking is what was missing. There were only a handful of programs organized around specialized news beat areas. These included CNN’s “Inside Politics” and “Lou Dobbs Tonight” (economics), Fox’s “On the Record” (crime) and MSNBC’s “Abrams Report” (crime).

On the weekdays we studied, none of the three cable networks produced any programs devoted to in-depth coverage of any other specialized areas, social issues or other domestic or international themes. There are no designated programs, for instance, on healthcare, the environment, arts and culture, religion, travel education or the family. The headline-driven story selection criterion at each cable network determined that these beats were covered only scantily if they did not happen to surface as headline stories.

Topics on Cable News
Percent of All Time

Total CNN Fox MSNBC
Government 29% 22% 28% 31%
Foreign Affairs/Military 22 24 21 21
Defense 2 2 2 2
Domestic 6 7 8 5
Business/Commerce 3 3 3 2
Crime 11 10 12 9
Science/Tech. 1 1 1 1
Celebrity/Enter. 7 7 5 8
Lifestyle 9 9 9 9
Accidents/Disasters 10 13 9 8
Other 3 3 2 4

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

In our sample, for example, the limited nature of topics can be seen even more clearly if we look at just one area, domestic affairs. The subcategories of public health, education, the environment, the health care system, and transportation accounted for just 2 percent of the time on the three cable channels. Terrorism accounted for double that.

Here is another way to look at it. If people had watched one of these cable channels for the entire 16 hours, they would have in the course of the full day seen:4

Given that most people do not watch a cable channel for 16 hours a day, in practical terms they saw virtually nothing about these areas.

In contrast, on a given day, watching for 16 hours, they would have seen:

Differences In Cable Networks

Much of the popular discussion of cable surrounds the question of ideology, and whether Fox News is, as advertised, fairer and more balanced than the other networks or, as some critics allege, it is a more ideologically conservative network.

This study does not attempt to quantify this. Ideology, to some degree, is in the eye of the beholder and is a difficult matter to pin down with numbers.

But a close look at the journalistic makeup of cable news suggests that the more manifest “Fox Effect” on cable news is economic – an orientation toward using fewer people to produce news by focusing on fewer topics, doing fewer edited stories and airing more live reports.

CNN was more likely to do taped packages (18 percent of total airtime versus 8 percent for MSNBC and Fox News). This is especially true during early evening, when CNN’s “Politics Today” and “Lou Dobbs Tonight” are shown. During that time, 29 percent of the CNN news hole is edited packages (compared with 14 percent taped packages in the early evening on Fox News and 10 percent on MSNBC).

By contrast, voiceover videotapes, reports in which the anchor comments while the screen shows silent video, are a specialty of Fox News. In the course of a day, Fox News presents an average of 11 each hour (CNN and MSNBC each average eight), reaching a dizzying peak in the anchor Shepard Smith’s “Fox Report,” whose hour contains a daily average of 46 voiceovers, as many as ABC’s Peter Jennings would deliver in 10 half-hour newscasts.

Story Types on Cable News
Percent of All Time

CNN Fox News MSNBC
Edited Package 18% 8% 8%
External Interviews 28 36 33
Internal Interviews 8 9 10
Standups 22 22 20
Anchor Reads 13 15 16
Live Events 8 7 8
Banter 2 3 4
External Source 0 1 1

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Beyond that, however, the similarities among the networks are bigger than the differences. The topics on the three networks, for instance, are remarkably similar. And, the three networks are virtually indistinguishable in the level of repetition, the percentage of new stories through the course of the day and the level of substantive updates.

They are virtually identical in the level of national versus international stories.

They are also similar in the sourcing of their stories. At each of the networks only between 22 and 26 percent of their segments cited and identified at least two named sources. They differed little in the use of anonymous sourcing. At CNN and Fox News, about a quarter of the stories (23 percent each) relied on anonymous sources. The number was only slightly lower at MSNBC, 19 percent.

Daypart May Make More Difference Than Network

While the journalistic makeup at the three cable channels is similar, it is a misleading to talk about cable news as if it were one seamless product. Rather, there are four distinct personalities to the cable news day- morning news, daytime, early evening and prime time. Except in the morning, they bear striking resemblances on all three channels.

Morning

The morning news, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (and until 10 a.m. on CNN), is one of the few periods when there are clear and measurable differences among the networks in their fundamental journalistic approaches.5

CNN’s “American Morning” has more of a hint of a traditional news program. About 12 percent of the time is filled with packages by correspondents. Just 3 percent of the time is filled with anchor banter.

MSNBC’s morning program is literally the Don Imus radio show put on television, with 25 percent of the time anchor banter and only 3 percent packages. It may make corporate sense for NBC News to devote such minimal resources to cable programming in this time slot since its biggest hit, the “Today” show, airs simultaneously on broadcast.

Fox News’s morning show, “Fox and Friends,” is a hybrid of a morning network television news show and a morning drive time radio show. There are virtually no story packages (1 percent of the time) and 18 percent of the time is anchor banter.

All three morning programs rely more heavily on interviews (39 percent at CNN, 45 percent Fox News and 47 percent for Imus at MSNBC) than in any other part of the day that was examined.

Cable Morning News, Story Type
Percent of All Time

Total CNN Fox News MSNBC
Edited Package 6% 12% 1% 3%
External Interviews 32 28 38 32
Internal Interviews 11 11 7 15
Standups 17 23 19 5
Anchor Reads 18 20 15 18
Live Events 2 4 2 1
Banter 14 3 18 25
External Source 0 0 0 0

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Daytime

At midmorning (9 a.m., but 10 a.m. on CNN )6, the three cable channels convert to newsdesk programs following the handful of selected stories of the day, usually those with some visual component they can follow. This is the daytime part of cable, with generic, unpackaged content embodied in the programs’ titles: CNN’s “Live From…” or “Fox News Live” or “MSNBC Live.” With more correspondents now working, and the news day in full swing, there is more use of reporter stand-ups, which make up a third of the daytime news hole. Anchor “tell” stories (even though they average just 30 seconds in duration) are now so numerous that they take up more total time than two-minute-plus taped reports. Interviews become less frequent than at any time of the day and anchor banter all but disappears.

Cable Daytime News, Story Type
Percent of All Time

Total CNN Fox News MSNBC
Edited Package 11% 14% 8% 10%
External Interviews 21 20 27 16
Internal Interviews 8 8 5 11
Standups 34 33 35 34
Anchor Reads 15 14 15 15
Live Events 10 10 9 11
Banter 1 1 * 1
External Source 1 1 1 1

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Early Evening

As daytime programming switches to early evening, all three cable news networks adjust again.7 On all three channels, this is the time of day when traditional taped packages are most likely to air, but there are great disparities between their decisions about how prominently to use this format. CNN uses this format frequently (29 percent of the time, compared to 14 percent at Fox News and only 10 percent at MSNBC) in programs such as “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and “Anderson Cooper 360º.”

Fox News uses this time period to showcase its panel of in-house experts (13 percent of the time, compared to 6 percent at CNN and 10 percent at MSNBC), the most notable fixture being Brit Hume’s panel of political pundits on “Special Report.”

By contrast, MSNBC’s interview subjects tend to be guests rather than staffers (42 percent of the time, compared to 29 percent at CNN and 38 percent at Fox News). Chris Matthews'”Hardball” on MSNBC has an interview format to counterprogram Cooper on CNN and Smith on Fox News.

Cable Early Evening News, Story Type
Percent of All Time

Total CNN Fox News MSNBC
Edited Package 18% 29% 14% 10%
External Interviews 36 29 38 42
Internal Interviews 10 6 13 10
Standups 18 16 17 23
Anchor Reads 14 15 15 11
Live Events 1 1 2 2
Banter 2 4 * 1
External Source * 0 * 1

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Prime Time

As the cable channels move into prime time, after 8 p.m., the term “cable news” is arguably something of a misnomer altogether.8 Few of the programs are newscasts in the traditional sense of the term. They might more accurately be described as talk radio on television – interview programs, often with people who are also radio talk show hosts during the day. CNN’s “NewsNight With Aaron Brown” is the closest prime time cable comes to a conventional newscast.

Interviews with guests – newsmakers, celebrities, experts, political activists – begin to dominate. They are even more frequent than in the mornings (at CNN 45 percent of the time, at Fox News 46 percent and at MSNBC 55 percent). The content, moreover, switches from being driven by the day’s headlines to topics chosen by the networks’ interviewer-anchors such as CNN’s Larry King, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.

Cable Prime Time News, Story Types
Percent of All Time

Total CNN Fox News MSNBC
Edited Package 9% 20% 4% 6%
External Interviews 49 45 46 55
Internal Interviews 8 8 13 4
Standups 6 6 8 3
Anchor Reads 14 5 17 20
Live Events 13 17 13 12
Banter 0 0 0 0
External Source * * 0 *

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Management — The Control Room as Star

Much of the commentary and analysis about the cable news networks performed by others has focused on teasing out the underlying political ideology informing what stories they select to cover, what journalistic angles they choose to emphasize and what personnel they hire as correspondents and in-house experts.

This analysis was designed to examine those same decisions but to inspect them instead according to journalistic criteria. What we have found is a series of decisions that strengthen management’s control over content and weaken autonomous decision-making by reporters.

On cable, whoever runs the control room is the star, more than the anchor and certainly more than the correspondent-producer team gathering news in the field.

This is manifest in many ways. It begins with the limited number of stories that the cable channels actually follow at length. Control goes to whoever makes the decision about what those stories will be. The control room makes the decision about what pictures will run over the correspondents’ stand-ups, and thus at least half of viewers’ impressions, whereas in a more story-driven medium, such as nightly news, the correspondents and their producers choose the pictures to illustrate their pieces. The notion from network nightly news, of the anchor as the “managing editor” of the newscast, being involved in decisions about story lineup, correspondent assignments and more along with the executive producer, is unthinkable in this live format, and unworkable. The exception is the prime time program – more interview than news program – in which the star anchor is the central figure.

These trends are true at all three cable channels. In some small ways, however, it might be argued that Fox News keeps somewhat tighter editorial control on the content of its interviews than its rivals. Fox, for instance, devotes more time to questions and answers with in-house experts than it does with “outsiders,” interview subjects who are not on the payroll.

The whole picture, at all three networks, is ofa medium with enormous time to fill, with a great deal of repetition and perhaps with an impression of immediacy that is greater than reality. Viewers get closer to the raw elements that once went into journalism rather than what, in other forms of television news, was once considered the end product.

Footnotes

1. Within those months, the dates that randomly came up were Monday, June 16; Tuesday, July 15; Thursday, August 21; Friday, September 19, and Wednesday, September 24.

2. The intensive approach makes it difficult to compare the topic agenda on cable news to that of other media studied in this report, since there were fewer days and the dates did not overlap. In future years, we intend to combine both the intensive approach taken here with the more multiday approach taken for other media.

3. Our daily samples started with the morning programming at 7 a.m., so in the first few hours we may have been monitoring updates or repetitions of stories that had been airing overnight. These were not necessarily new material but instead just fresh to our monitors.

4. These breakdowns were calculated by taking the total number of seconds devoted to each topic overall, dividing by 60 (seconds) and then dividing by 3 (the cable channels). This results in an average number of minutes on a cable channel over the course of 28 days.

5. For the purposes of this study, the four day parts are roughly equal among the three cable networks but may vary by one hour depending on each network’s specific programming. The morning segment ran from 7 to 10 a.m. on CNN and 7 to 9 a.m. on Fox and MSNBC.

6. For this study, the daytime category consisted of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on CNN, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fox and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on MSNBC).

7. Early evening ran from 4 to 8 p.m. on CNN, 3 to 7 p.m. on Fox and 4 to 7 p.m. on MSNBC.

8. For this study, prime time ran from 8 to 11 p.m. on CNN and 7 to 11 p.m. on both Fox and MSNBC.

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