War Is Hell, But Not For Networks
However sad and twisted, let it be said: war is a plus for TV networks. At least in the beginning. As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, over time Americans’ interest wanes, but initial invasions, cruise-missile bombardments or something as symbolic as the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue can bring a ratings bump.
As the U.S. appears on the brink of war-like action against Syria in response to alleged use of chemical weapons, expect increased tune-in as the drama unfolds for both the cable news outlets and broadcast newscasts.
Networks are mobilizing. ABC has reporters in countries bordering Syria and can access coverage from the BBC. CBS has a reporter on the Syria-Turkey border.
But there are two networks that may view an attack on Syria as a significant chance to boost their profile: CNN and Al Jazeera America.
CNN has a reputation as the go-to destination during international crises and has seen ratings rise. Now, it is under the relatively new leadership of Jeff Zucker, who surely will look to amplify that. Zucker is said to be exceedingly competitive and successful at cajoling, so who knows who he’s been on the phone with and access he's landed to secure exclusive images?
CNN has already lived up to its billing with reporter Fred Pleitgen on the ground in dangerous Damascus. On Sunday, he interviewed Syria’s deputy foreign minister who told him U.N. weapons inspectors would have compete access to investigate whether chemical weapons were employed on Syria's own people.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Pleitgen said the minister also “warned the United States, saying that if the U.S. decided to take military action here in Syria, it would kill a lot of civilians and that also, the Syrian government would fight back.”
“However, when I asked him what fighting back exactly meant, he said that he wouldn't say that on CNN television,” Pleitgen said, according to a transcript.
The Syrian crisis also offers the recently launched Al Jazeera America a fortuitous platform in its efforts to establish itself as a credible U.S. news organization. Al Jazeera, of course, has roots in the Middle East and ample contacts. And Al Jazeera English, which mostly was only available in the U.S. via a live Internet stream, provided impressive coverage during the initial Egyptian uprising and Libya bombings.
Analyzing media activity with a certain coarseness, a negative for networks is Damascus is seven hours ahead of New York time. If U.S. and allied forces wait until darkness in Syria to launch attacks, any pulsating live coverage with cameras capturing explosions and other activity from inside Syria would probably happen after prime time on the East Coast – though not in the Pacific time zone.
Of course, late-night action could help ratings for the network morning shows a few hours later. There’s the old maxim in the TV news business that “if it bleeds, it leads.” With international U.S. aggression, some variation of “an attack will attract” surely applies.