Skip to main content

The challenge for cable news

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
David Frum says for breaking news, cable competes with social media. It needs to find new ways to capture viewers for news.
David Frum says for breaking news, cable competes with social media. It needs to find new ways to capture viewers for news.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says he heard about Paul Ryan pick on Twitter, didn't switch on TV for many hours
  • He says cable no longer has corner on breaking news; social media scooping it more and more
  • He says cable news must face new reality, get more personality-driven, seek upmarket niche
  • Frum: Cable should skip fancy effects, go deep and long in reports, find new relevance

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- Like many people in the media and political world, I first heard from Twitter the news that Mitt Romney had chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate. The information appeared between 11 p.m. and midnight on a Friday night. The alert was quickly confirmed by multiple news sources on my Twitter feed: TV networks, newspapers, wire services. Like many journalists, I stayed up late that night to write about the decision, filing copy over the next three hours. I was so weary the next morning that I very nearly slept through the broadcast of the actual announcement event in Norfolk, Virginia.

I didn't, quite. And so it was a little less than 12 hours after the breaking of this important political story that I first switched on my TV.

Things move fast in the modern world, so let's cut straight to the point: Cable TV is no longer the place where news breaks, and has not been so for years. Social media have done to cable TV news what cable news, in its day, did to the afternoon editions of big-city papers: shouldered aside its slower and less adaptable predecessor.

David Frum
David Frum

In this new world, the distinction between reporters and sources, between media and everybody else, begins to fade away. The correspondent who calls an expert for analysis may find himself on hold while the expert posts her thoughts to her blog for all the world to read. For more than a century, journalists have mediated between knowledge-holders and information consumers. But the Internet is bringing producers and consumers ever more directly into contact, whether the product is steel girders, home mortgages, or breaking news.

What cable news does do, unrivaled, is broadcast images of events to a large global audience. When there's a crowd protesting in Tahrir Square -- or a wildfire raging in southern California -- viewers still turn to cable. Yet how often do such events occur? And how much longer will even that advantage hold? In a world of camera phones, everybody becomes a video journalist. Our images of the violence in Syria all come from locals -- and are available to any media organization that will buy or barter for them.

So what should cable do in such a news environment?

Three things:

1) Accept that the days of "the news is the star" are over. Generic news moves too fast for cable. Nobody will tune to a cable news network unless there is a very compelling reason to tune to that specific network at that particular time. There's only one such reason: "People like to watch the people they like to watch." Everything else is just filler. Like it or not, TV is for personality, not only for information.

2) Go upmarket. Cable news is inescapably a niche market. There are 311 million people in the United States. Even at peak hours, 306 million of them are not watching cable news. At nonpeak hours, 309 million of them are not watching cable news. The 2 million- to 5 million-person cable news audience is made up of unusually smart and curious people, and they should be served appropriate content. The people who can be reached by "dumbing down" TV have already been successfully reached by the Kardashian family.

3) Go deep and long. "'Time, time,' said old King Tut, 'is something I ain't got anything but.'" That funny little poem by Don Marquis also aptly describes cable news. It's got acres and acres of time to fill, 52 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As it is, cable news treats that time as a problem to be overcome with sound and visual effects intended to create a feeling (almost always false) of immediacy and urgency. Those effects long ago lost their credibility.

Meanwhile, every day on YouTube some amateur documentarian shows that video can be used to convey ideas and information in interesting and entertaining ways. See the TED lectures, and the Big Think series, and the contrasting videos produced by Paul Ryan for the House budget committee and Austan Goolsbee for the Obama White House. The website SecondDraft.org uses video to correct deceptive reports from the Middle East. The Academy Award-winning documentary "Inside Job" effectively used video to unpack the 2008 financial crisis for a general audience.

Cable TV relishes the confrontation interview. But the public figures that TV wants to interview usually have the poise and practice to sidestep such confrontations. Longer and less confrontational interviews -- such as those Brian Lamb used to do for C-SPAN -- reveal much more than cable TV's mostly misfired attempts at gotcha moments.

In their business-book classic "Barbarians at the Gate," authors Bryan Burrough and John Helyar quote a lament for the Nabisco company. "Some genius invented the Oreo cookie. We're just living off the inheritance." As tough as it is to found a great industry or great company, it is -- in its own way -- even tougher to adapt that industry or company to a new era. It can be done. It has to be done.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT