You know the economy is bad when people actually begin to care about the news. But Americans vote with their pocketbooks and the resurgence in TV news viewing clearly is an extension of that.
There is frustration and incredulousness. There is a fear the recession may never end. There is utter disbelief that dysfunction in Washington continues, while the recession may never end.
There may also be some feelings of wea culpa. There may be a realization that tuning out on public affairs for long periods of time somehow allowed Washington or Wall Street to churn along unchecked. Probably impractically, people may feel if they had watched the news here and there they might have caught on to something.
There are suggestions that sensational trials, a Royal Wedding and an Arab Spring may have led to broadcast networks’ posting a year-over-year surge in viewership in their evening newscasts for the first time in about a decade (according to the AP). That’s hard to believe considering those types of stories don’t exactly make up a new genre.
Also, consider The New York Times report that Republican Presidential debates are posting much better ratings than four years ago. Mitt Romney isn’t talking about Casey Anthony. People are dialed in because they are scared they may never be able to retire and their portfolios are crashing.
(Herman Cain is ahead in the polls because he is Ross Perot circa early 1992. People are so economically exasperated, there is an opening for a charismatic businessman who has done well in the private sector with apparent fiscal management skill.)
Last spring, President Obama wanted to give an address about Libya and asked the networks for time. They weren’t keen on giving away slots that could be better used for the likes of “Dancing With The Stars” and Obama was essentially forced into a 7:30 p.m. position.
The stock market hadn’t started plummeting yet, so the public didn’t appear to mind. (Obama’s jobs speech last month was also delivered before prime time, but the public can be excused for accepting that. A later time slot would have conflicted with an NFL game and, well, haven’t people suffered enough?)
It will be interesting to see what happens the next time the President asks for a key time slot? My guess is the Prez will be back at 9 p.m.
He’s a compelling character again. (He may be more interesting than a lot of what NBC has to offer. So, the network might do a complete reversal and beg him to keep talking from 8 to 11 and run ads during water breaks.)
What is interesting is the surge in news interest would seem to buck the supposition that people want to put troubles aside and cuddle up to a comedy or law-enforecement drama when times are tough.
NBC will find out soon how much interest there is in a different kind of reality TV as it’s set to debut a prime-time newsmagazine with Brian Williams later this month. Certainly, the hiring of Ted Koppel as a correspondent signals fluff may be minimal. Talk about a ratings grabber: let him interview Washington or Wall Street heavyweights and deftly expose them.
NBC isn’t the only network looking to tap into the apparent zeitgeist. CBS is counting on hard news to continue bolstering its evening newscast and help in the morning.
Local broadcasters are even focusing more on investigative reporting, according to Broadcasting & Cable, which makes utter sense. A cynical public that may feel as it has been hosed by what the Occupy Wall Street movement refers to as the powerful 1% may now be willing to pay more attention.
Financial frsutration tends to do that.