Cable-News Hopes for ‘Nightline’ Moment for Election-Cycle Shows

Brian Williams 11th Hour NBC
Brad Barket/MSNBC

MSNBC’s “11th Hour” wasn’t supposed to be on the air more than a few weeks.  “We’ll be here at this hour from now until Election Day,” noted the show’s host, Brian Williams, during its 11 p.m. debut in early September, “when we will cancel ourselves.”

With nearly a month passed since that demarcation point, Williams’ show is still on the air.

Over at CNN, meanwhile, Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper continue to host two-hour long versions of their primetime shows, which were expanded months ago as interest in the coming election boomed.

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Cable-news appears to be hoping for a new “Nightline” moment. That venerable ABC program had its origins in a news tsunami that gripped the nation in 1979, the Iran hostage crisis. Ted Koppel convened an audience on most weekdays after the late local news to give them the latest details on the situation, and in doing so became so entrenched in the schedule that the network saw in the program a viable competitor to Johnny Carson on NBC.Nearly four decades later, with the nation about to enter an era under a vastly different type of President, the cable-news outlets are gambling that the stuff they served viewers before the election will grow into a new type of electronic campfire, where viewers can watch anchors and panels hash out the latest details or gain access to people in the midst of the political process. Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly and the rest of cable-news’ primetime crowd never seem to have to scramble for something to talk about in what has become a never-ending news cycle.

“There are so many issues of medium- and long-term newsworthiness that this election has stirred up, whether its Supreme Court nominations, infrastructure investment,” noted Lawrence Epstein, a former director of finance at CBS News who now teaches  entertainment and arts management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It is a counter-intuitive election year.”

The normal routine is this: The election ends, audiences start to wander away and cable reshuffles its lineup to reflect the dynamic. In 2013, for example, the year after the networks chronicled the battle for the White House between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the combined median prime-time viewership of CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC dropped 11% to about 3 million, according to data from Pew Research Center. James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, cautioned investors before the election that ratings tend to slip once the nation knows who will be its next Commander-in-Chief.

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To be certain, there have been occasional signs of programming schedules returning to normal. CNN on Wednesday is expected to air a two-hour special featuring weekend host Fareed Zakaria examining the legacy of President Obama. But the Time Warner network continues to rely most heavily in primetime on the marathon shows led by Cooper and Lemon, along with their massive coterie of fuming analysts and surrogates.

And yet, the cable-news outlets have little incentive to shift into post-election mode. What they put on the air leading up to the victory of Donald Trump is working just fine.

All three networks – Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC – saw heady viewership increases in primetime in November. Since November 9, the day after Election Day, Fox News Channel’s overall primetime viewership rose 38% through December 1, according to data from Nielsen. CNN’s increased 23% and MSNBC’s hiked 50%. Fox News’ viewership between 25 and 54 – the demographic most desired by advertisers – rose 53%, while CNN’s increased 16% and MSNBC’s rose 48%   The month may be something of an outlier: Interest in the election was at its peak in the days before Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College in the race for the White House.

MSNBC and CNN declined to make executives available to comment on their current and future programming schedules. Nonetheless, Brian Williams isn’t likely to cancel himself this week.

The question remains: Are these current line-ups the new normal for cable news? To get the answer, one would have to analyze whether the hosts want to continue in those roles. And one would require a crystal ball to determine if President-elect Trump’s administration will continue to prove as unconventional as his support staff did during the recent campaign.

And then, of course, there’s the news cycle. Would it make sense for the network’s all-encompassing focus on politics to broaden after the coming Presidential inauguration? If viewers continue to tune in each night, the networks will have their answer.

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