How the web will save — or kill — cable television news

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CNN as viewed on Sling TV. (Photo: The Desk)

CNN as viewed on Sling TV. (Photo: The Desk)

Among the outpouring of tributes for the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in the hours after his death stood an unlikely, but honest, one: A tweet by newspaper editor Piers Morgan containing an e-mail sent by Carr in early 2014.

The message was regarding Morgan’s prime-time talk show on CNN, the one that replaced the legendary flagship “Larry King Live.” The show, which had been off to a solid start after months of hype and promotion, had fizzled. Morgan was having important conversations on a wide variety of hot-button topics with newsmakers and controversial figures alike, but television viewers just weren’t tuning in — something Carr, in his unique way of being elegant yet forward — made abundantly clear.

“The show is not working,” Carr wrote. “Partly due to American provincialism and partly because of a failure to assimilate on your part.”

Two days later, Carr published an article informing his readers — and there were many of them — that Morgan’s show was coming to a close. Among other reasons, Carr cited Morgan’s foreignness, his brashness and his opinion, the latter of which Morgan hardly attempted to conceal during his short-lived, hour-long nightly telecast.

But what Carr didn’t mention was that CNN’s ratings crisis was bigger than Piers Morgan. It was a CNN-level crisis that CNN could handle — if it chose to.

When the Cable News Network signed on in the mid 1980s, it was billed by Ted Turner as a 24-hour version of a local newscast covering stories of national importance. A sort of on-demand news medium that was only, at the time, available in newspapers and magazines. Except, unlike newspapers or magazines, all it took was walking into a living room, turning on a TV set and tuning to CNN. And, unlike newspapers or magazines, the news came through in real-time — sometimes polished, sometimes raw.

It was an ambitious project, one that Turner believed was his duty to take on, and one that was laughed at for years. It wasn’t until a baby fell down a water well in Texas that Americans saw the power of watching a story happening hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away unfold in real time. Being there without being there.

CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War would leave an indelible mark on the industry as well. All of the network television stations covered the conflict, but only CNN had the foresight to cover it live. Even though Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman’s initial dispatches from the Baghdad Hotel resembled more of a radio broadcast, it was still a broadcast. It was CNN’s broadcast. It was coverage that every decades-old network sourced (and, in some cases, re-distributed).

Shortly after establishing itself as a domineering force in around-the-clock news, CNN outgrew itsself. In response, Turner launched a supplementary channel: CNN 2, later CNN Headline News. The two channels gave viewers a choice between nuts-and-bolts journalism (CNN Headline News) or live breaking news meshed with in-depth coverage and expert analysis (CNN).

Today, CNN is hardly a relic of its old self. Its dispatches from conflict zones have been replaced with gimmicky holograms and virtual reality.  Veteran, authoritative voices of broadcast journalism have been supplanted by attractive, somewhat-articulate news celebrities who question whether black holes cause planes to vanish into thin air. The companion channel meant to offer viewers a service of hard news is suffering a very public identity crisis, where buzzy viral videos are given a time slot alongside repeat airings of “Forensic Files” (the latter of which takes up nearly a quarter of the regular broadcast day — sometimes more).

Over the years, CNN’s ratings have taken a hit — initially because it refused to evolve, then because it evolved into something absurd. CNN refused to capitulate to the landscape’s evolution toward partisan political coverage — something that afforded the Fox News Channel, and later MSNBC, great success on opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead, the channel chose to embrace infotainment, and while it has given comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert fodder for their parody late-night news broadcasts, it has damaged CNN’s reputation within the journalism industry and it has encouraged the greater public to look elsewhere if it wants to be informed.

To be fair, some of that is not CNN’s doing. From its inception to the mid-2000s, television proved itself to be a powerful information platform. It was the medium that Americans turned into during times of celebration and crisis alike. Television was the way people en masse digested the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the lies of Richard Nixon, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the indulgence of Bill Clinton and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

The live feed of Al Jazeera English playing on a laptop computer. (Photo: The Desk)

The live feed of Al Jazeera English playing on a laptop computer. (Photo: The Desk)

But information consumption habits have changed very fast in the last 15 years. Television has been superseded as an information platform by the Internet. And because of it, startup news channels have suffered. Networks like Fusion and Al Jazeera America that seek the same kind of validation that met CNN and Fox in their infancies are scratching their heads trying to figure out why their products aren’t working — why, no matter how many brand-name journalists they hire, they can’t attract viewers. They can’t sell ads. They can’t be successful.

The answer is remarkably simple: Given the choice between a $120 cable bill and a $120 phone bill, most Americans — especially young ones — will choose the phone. It doesn’t take a marketing major to figure out why: Cable television is anchored to the wall. A smartphone, on the other hand, is information liberated by design.

And despite their online successes — Al Jazeera’s English channel was consumed by millions of Americans online until the network blocked its stream in the US; Fusion recently received considerable attention for things its journalists have said and done online, not on television — many broadcast news brands continue to treat the Internet as a supplement instead of a platform.

CBS, ABC and Fox each have streaming news services, but the allocation of staff, attention and priority is significantly less than that of its legacy broadcast products (they’re trying mostly for the sake of trying, but they’re not committing). Outside of occasional major news stories, there is no easy way to watch CNN online without paying for a cable subscription (or, very recently, a $20-a-month subscription to the streaming service Sling TV). The same is generally true for the on-air version of the Fox News Channel, CNBC and MSNBC. Outside of a few, on-demand news clips, there is no way to watch complete shows or live broadcasts from Fusion or Al Jazeera America online at all.

Their choices not to innovate or seek validation through antiquated business models have yielded success to several emerging information products online. The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, TheBlaze and Gawker are stepping up to collect and disseminate the stories of the day as selected by their respective audiences. Newspapers, which once served as a model of day-old news, have become authoritative voices of digital news after re-tooling their approaches to covering stories of significant importance.

But newspapers only began to embrace the Internet after realizing the interconnected series of tubes was pushing them to the point of obsolescence. They, too, were late to embrace the computer network as a way of distributing their work, and because of it thousands of editors, reporters and photographers lost their jobs. Some newspapers were forced to merge. Others folded. It was a bloodbath that was the newspaper industry’s own doing, and one from which it is only now beginning to recover and rebound.

The same will be true of the cable television news industry. Its innovate-or-die moment was delayed mostly because, unlike text and pictures, the broadband infrastructure and subsequent mass adoption required to upend a live audio/video product wasn’t initially there. But it’s here now.