Skip to main content

The challenge for cable news

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
August 23, 2012 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT