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 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT