The Politics of Volume
The announcement of Keith Olbermann's signing with Current TV this week unfortunately made me think about the world of Infotainment, or OpinionNews, or whatever you want to call it.
Now, it's easy to dismiss such a move by Olbermann as one of either hubris or desperation. Is this an act of someone who believes himself bigger than the medium, like Howard Stern and his jump to Sirius? Or is it a grasp to stay relevant, taking his opportunity in one of the only venues that didn't have a non-compete clause in his deal with MSNBC? Will the right have Keith Olbermann to kick around anymore?
A few years ago, my wife and I happened to be in Williamsburg, Va. There, we stopped to listen to an impassioned "Thomas Jefferson" who was standing on a small stage in a public square, giving news of a brave General Washington and what he was facing to defend a new idea: that these colonies should be free from the tyranny of the British crown. The crowd he was speaking to was rather small; there were barely 50 souls gathered that hot day in this bustling colonial metropolis. But what he said, he said with such earnestness, such zeal, that you couldn't help but believe that these ideals of a free nation might just work. No, not might -- must.
Current TV, our media generation's representative for such a venue (let's just call it "massroots" media. Do you think that will catch on?), will most likely have even less impact than such a well-placed speech. Olbermann will likely have more Twitter followers than viewers. More measureable ones, at least.
But he will be unleashed, and allowed to bask in his politics as he sees fit. But make no mistake -- the news of this Chief News Officer will be seen through Keith-tinted glasses.
See, there's a big difference between what Jefferson was doing and what the cable NewsBarkers are doing today. Jefferson wasn't just preaching accepted dogma; he had to create the beliefs he was extolling. Today, they're preaching to the converted. But they all seem to assert themselves and their platforms as if they're following in Jefferson's traditions. They're not. Back then, the "us" versus "them" had real, lethal consequences. Now, all they're risking are demographics.
What I'm curious about is why it should matter. From an audience reach perspective, it shouldn't.
For example, Glenn Beck, one of the most polarizing of our Opinionists, reached 5.43% of all 2+ viewers at some point during January of this month. And that's on a Live+3 Day basis, for all you C3 enthusiasts who might want to believe that time shifting matters with "news" programming (his Live reach was a 5.22). Compare that to the nondescript "Crimetime Saturday" that CBS aired in January - its 3-Day reach was 7.71. Want something more specific? How about the more than likely to be cancelled "Lie to Me" - 7.52. (Source: Nielsen NPower).
Total 2+ Reach/Frequency of Cable News Personalities
The O'Reilly Factor 8.01/6.5
Anderson Cooper 360 6.60/3.1
Glenn Beck 5.43/4.8
Parker Spitzer 3.87/2.5
Rachel Maddow Show 3.50/4.8
Keith Olbermann 3.49/4.6
Chris Matthews 3.31/5.9
Lawrence O'Donnell 3.03/4.2
Joe Scarborough 2.14/5.5
Source: Nielsen NPower
So for all their bombast, all their destructive power that they wield over our polarized national discourse, these Belief Brokers are not really reaching all that many of us. What they are doing is proselytizing to their own believers, again and again and again -- each with more than enough opinion disguised as fact to create a "Truth of Frequency," perfected (to a point) during the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" era.
Let's put a few more numbers around the disproportionate attention we give these very loud cable personalities, shall we? (Source: Nielsen Galaxy)
When Fox moved its niche drama "Fringe" to the "Friday night death slot," its strategists were thrilled to find that the first Friday episode only lost around 144,000 A18-49 viewers versus its Thursday average.
"Countdown with Keith Olbermann" averaged about 157,000 A18-49 viewers during the past year.
So having a show that they all but expected to be slaughtered lose nearly as many viewers as you pull in is considered a victory.
The worst night for the Jay Leno Show train wreck from last year averaged 1,550,000 A18-49 viewers. Consider all the fallout that resulted from a colossal failure of a show that delivered 10 times the viewers than Olbermann averaged on MSNBC.
Sure, but the news tends to skew older, you'll say. Well, Huckabee averages around 175,000 A25-54 viewers. Fox's "Lone Star", a drama thought to evoke the old "Dallas" vibe which would hit that target, lost 350,000 A25-54 viewers between its lone two episodes.
But after all that's said, is it really fair to equate the viewership of these very targeted programs with mass-appeal prime-time programs?
Let me ask you which is having more of an impact upon your paycheck, marital status, and healthcare coverage: "House" -- or Glenn Beck?
It's not only fair. Jefferson would probably say that it's a must for any fair, equal -- and yes, balanced -- society.