Remember when MTV actually played music?
Of course we don’t. That’s an obscure moment in time that few at AU could even imagine — think early 1980s. Now, 15-second splices of music videos in between “The Hills” and “Jackass” programming blocks suffice as “Music Television.”
This column isn’t meant to be pop culture commentary. Rather, the evolution of MTV serves as a (hopefully) precautionary analogy — for we soon may find that the question “remember when CNN, Fox and MSNBC reported the news?” will be met with equally quizzical and perplexed stares.
Some may balk at this proposition. How could a 24-hour news networks broadcast anything but, well, news? Admittedly, it sounds far-fetched. To the average viewer, it sure seems like they report the news. Of course, the occasional biased remark exists, but the right or left leaning tendencies are largely harmless, say the reporters. Network executives still refute the cry that a political bias had poisoned their ability to produce a “fair and balanced” news report.
Yet an analysis of three networks’ prime time programming coupled with their Nielsen ratings reveals a disturbing trend — one that counters this claim of impartiality.
Prime time is when most people watch television — an obvious statement, perhaps, but important in this argument nonetheless. One would hope that during times with the most viewers, networks would provide unbiased coverage of the facts. Think Cronkite, Tom Brokaw or even Peter Jennings. These anchors featured programs that attempted to deliver the news — the unbiased, straight-faced, boring news. True, there are cable anchors that strive for this. But they report midday, attracting merely half the viewers of the 8 to 11 p.m. slot.
During prime time however, cable news networks have consistently produced shows that focus on the inflammatory rather than the facts. Even CNN has Lou Dobbs. His foray into the realm of the “birther” conspiracy was bizarre — hardly passable as news. Yet Dobbs’ show garners the highest ratings of CNN prime time compared to competing networks. Campbell Brown (another CNN program), while more level in its reporting, ranks a dismal last behind the competition.
Consider MSNBC’s prime time lineup. At 8 and 10 p.m., there’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” The Daily Telegraph noted that Olbermann uses his show to promote “a strident liberal agenda.” Following him at 9 p.m. is Rachel Maddow, who made the switch to television after a lengthy career with the liberal radio network Air America. As MSNBC added Maddow and Olberman, its Nielsen ratings bypassed CNN, garnering the second highest amount of viewers.
As for Fox News, it remains atop the rankings among cable news networks. When it comes to the programming — well, enough said.
The trend in modern media seems to be this: replace traditional news with TV personalities with biased political agendas and receive better ratings. But even though the public may seem to approve of this development, it will surely harm the political atmosphere and civility of politics. If cable news networks continue respond to the ratings — gradually supplanting news with opinion based content — independent and nonpartisan ideas will meet a sheer and abrupt end. Where is the room for compromise when all information comes with a partisan bias?
Of course, this future would not be completely without news. In between the regular programming of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, producers might decide to show ten second news clips as the credits role.
Think it’s impossible for a news network to show mere seconds of actual news? Ask yourself how much music MTV plays?