In 2004, the cable channels’ news investment reached the highest level yet seen, mainly because Fox News and MSNBC increased their spending; CNN’s spending declined. Most of this extra expenditure was apparently devoted to upgrading facilities and providing day-in, day-out coverage of the two major stories of 2004 — the election and the Iraq war — rather than a sign of increased commitment to covering a broader news agenda.
In 2004, Kagan Research estimates, Fox and MSNBC increased their programming expenses by 20% and 7.5%, respectively, while CNN spent 9% less.
In terms of spending on people, the order between the three cable news channels remains unchanged. CNN leads the way with the largest newsgathering operation, including eleven domestic bureaus and twenty-eight international bureaus, and roughly 4,000 employees. Fox News has eleven domestic bureaus and six overseas.1 A 2003 New Yorker article by Ken Auletta put its staff at 1,250, though this may have grown in 2004 with election coverage.2 MSNBC alone has upwards of 500 employees; the entire NBC News division includes sixteen bureaus (six domestic and ten overseas).
1997 to 2004
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Source: Kagan Research unpublished data, www.kagan.com
* CNN figures include Headline News
The data do not distinguish between spending on personnel and spending on infrastructure — studios, equipment, and so on — but news reports suggest that the channels have concentrated on infrastructure and technology. CNN opened a new set of studios in the new Time Warner headquarters building in New York, bringing together its entire New York staff of 600 in one place.3 Fox News, meanwhile, totally rebuilt its New York studios.4
An unanticipated amount of money has gone to covering events in Iraq. A May 2004 report estimated, based on interviews with network personnel, that each news outlet had spent about $6 million covering Iraq in the year following the fall of Baghdad, including costs like extra satellite time and security personnel.5
Another major outlay in 2004 was for election coverage. The campaign required the cable channels to trek after the Democratic primary candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire early in the winter, and later on to provide on-scene coverage of the political conventions in Boston and New York and, finally, Election Day coverage from the country’s “swing states.”
There are signs, at CNN at least, that attention is turning to staffing. When it decided to shut down CNNfn it did not simply dismiss that network’s 110 staff members. Two shows were moved to the main CNN network, accounting for half of CNNfn’s employees, and at the same time, CNN announced plans to hire 100 employees at Headline News, the possible launch pad for new CNN shows.6
Network news organizations’ decision to devote no more than three hours of coverage to each of the party conventions laid the groundwork for cable to move into the role. But while the cable channels broadcast from the convention floors, and focused hours of their primetime coverage around events there, they didn’t cover the conventions in any traditional sense. To a large degree, they used the conventions as backdrops for their regular prime time talk programming, covering the events on the floor only sporadically. (For information on cable news ratings during the convention, see Audience.)
To some extent, the political conventions simply served as a backdrop for each channel’s news personalities.7 All three nominally devoted the entire three hours of “prime time” to convention coverage each of the eight nights of the party conventions. But figures collected by Media Matters for America, a liberal press watchdog group, show that each channel aired, on average, just 1 hour, 10 minutes of live speech coverage each night of the Democratic convention, and 1 hour and 12 minutes of such coverage each night of the Republican convention.8
People tuning into Fox, for instance, saw the O’Reilly Factor at the conventions, with Bill O’Reilly debating Michael Moore, and Sean Hannity interviewing the Democratic primary contender Howard Dean. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews became the lead anchor of that cable channel’s coverage. A former Democratic communications strategist for Tip O’Neill, Matthews is a talk-show host with limited credentials for covering news. For a time, he was a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and carried the title of bureau chief, but his reporting duties were minimal. His program during the conventions consisted much of the time of a rotating panel that included his fellow MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough (a former Congressman), former Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, the NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell and the Newsweek political correspondent Howard Fineman, arguing about the convention.
CNN seemed more oriented to traditional network coverage, though its key program in prime time — at 9 p.m. Eastern — continued to be Larry King, who focused on celebrity interviews with Bob Dole and the Washington investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward, who has never been a political campaign reporter.
Indeed, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, David Bohrman, suggested that “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may pull way back and rely on a pool to cover an event, maybe as early as 2008 or 2012.”9
Conventions certainly are no longer the news events they once were. Since the 1960s, conventions have been transformed from decision-making events where parties picked their nominees to communications events where they projected what they and their candidates stood for. That clearly changed the events. They became less newsworthy in the sense of being places where the unexpected happened. But they didn’t become less newsworthy in the sense of their impact on the public or their significance in the campaigns. They remain, along with the debates, perhaps the most critical events in how presidents are selected.
What that suggests is that rather than not covering them, television networks might consider covering them differently. The old model of convention coverage was based on stationing reporters at strategic points around the floor, linked by an anchor in a skybox above them who could see everything, plus having a correspondent with each candidate’s camp. That worked fairly well to capture news when things broke out, such as protests, or vote swings, or ideological fights.
But nothing like that has happened since 1968. Conventions now are critical in communicating what candidates and parties stand for. The fights and struggles occur in advance or in private. The questions news organizations could be answering include, Are the messages the campaigns are projecting accurate reflections of what the party has done, or who these candidates are? What is being left out? How did they get to this point? What were the ideological and tactical fights that went into these speeches? What does the Republican party stand for? What is the Democrat record? What has John Kerry done in 20 years in the Senate? What is the state of the economy, really?
Such stories lend themselves to a good deal of reporting in advance, to deep sources in the parties, to heavy background on party records in Congress, and to a good deal of prepared packages. Yet this is not what the cable networks have evolved into being good at. They are live talk networks for the most part.
Even the traditional broadcast networks, with their heavier emphasis and skill at the prepared package, have not switched to this kind of background reporting on conventions. They are still using the old model.
The cable networks, however, seem even less suited, in many ways, to make the switch. And in 2004, they showed even less of what was happening than the old networks used to show. To watch what was happening on the convention floor, viewers were really limited to PBS or C-SPAN.
1. “CNN Fact Sheet” and “Fox News Channel Fact Sheet,” from National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Cable Programming Guidebook, June 2004. Online: http://www.ncta.com/Docs/PageContent.cfm?pageID=240.
2. Ken Auletta, “Vox Fox,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2003.
3. David Ho, “For CNN in New York, bigger is better,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 15, 2004.
4. Paul Rogalinski, “Fox News updates N.Y. facility,” Broadcast Engineering, August 1, 2004.
5. Steve McClellan, “War of addition,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 17, 2004.
6. Bill Carter, “CNN will close financial news channel,” The New York Times, October 29, 2004.
7. Bill McConnell, “Big trick,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 16, 2004.
8. Media Matters for America, “FOX aired 48 minutes more (20 percent) of RNC speeches than of DNC speeches,” September 3, 2004.
9. David Bohrman, CNN Washington bureau chief, quoted in Diane Holloway, “TV losing its convention focus,” Austin American-Statesman, July 25, 2004.