By Chez Pazienza: Several years ago, when I was still working at CNN, there was a morning where I walked into anchor Carol Costello’s office to find her buried in the overnight numbers. I plunked myself down in the comfortable chair in front of her desk and waited for her to finish going through the not-so-rosy details and, sure enough, after a minute or two she dropped the paperwork, rolled her eyes in exasperation and sighed, “I don’t get it — how does Fox do it?” I chuckled a little, then answered, “Because Fox News is a brand, not a product.”
In case you’re not sure of the difference, it works like this: The people who watch Fox News aren’t looking for news, they’re looking for Fox News, or at least what the network refers to as news. They’re looking for a very specific kind of broadcast that doesn’t actually relay information but instead merely confirms their already inflexibly held biases. Nobody clicks over to Fox simply to find out what’s going on and to be brought up to date on the events of the day; they go to be told that they’re right in their worldview, justified in their outrage, and to never be truly challenged, confounded or even surprised by what they’re seeing or hearing. Because of this dynamic, Fox News doesn’t have viewers so much as it has disciples, and unlike the average person who tunes in to TV news once in a while just to get caught up or during a big event or breaking story, a Fox guy will put on the only channel he trusts to bring him the truth first thing in the morning and then leave it there. Fox News viewers are fans. They come and keep coming back, forsaking all others. Most news organizations would kill for that level of devotion.
It’s a little like McDonald’s fries: They don’t taste like fries, they taste like McDonald’s fries. And that’s what Fox is — the McDonald’s fries of TV news organizations.
With that kind of audience loyalty in mind, it’s no wonder MSNBC made the decision a few years ago to basically put in writing what everyone had known about it for some time: It wanted to be grab its own share of the political spectrum and be for liberal viewers what Fox News was for conservatives. While MS has to answer to the NBC News mothership, which is all about the Chuck Todd-approved phony objectivity of the “both sides are to blame” meme, it’s certainly allowed its opinion shows to skew undeniably to the left. And, as hoped, it’s paid off for the network in the ratings. At no point more clearly than over the past couple of nights — nights in which MSNBC, the former redheaded stepchild of the NBC empire, actually toppled the Fox News juggernaut in the key 25-54 demo. It’s the first time that’s happened two nights in a row.
The word “seismic” is already being tossed around to describe what this shift — or at least hiccup — might mean for the world for cable news, but I think it’s obviously much too early to tell. What it probably does show, however, is that we’re entering an age in which news viewers don’t simply tune in to a generic 24-hour news outlet when there’s a big breaking story or major event, they tune in to a specific partisan outlet when a story breaks that falls in line with its advertised political loyalties. Over the past two nights, of course, Mitt Romney’s woes in the wake of the release of a video showing him dismissing half the country as freeloaders who’ll never vote for him anyway have dominated the headlines. And whether you want to immerse yourself in every detail of the story or simply watch its hosts barely be able to hide their desire to giddily jump up on their desks and do the Snoopy dance — or maybe because Fox News has either ignored the story or engaged in vaudevillian verbal gymnastic in an attempt to cover for Romney — the face-value smart thing to do has been to turn to MSNBC. The network specializes in liberal politics in prime time and so it would only make sense that for a lot of people, whether looking for genuine information or something to gloat over, it’d represent the logical destination.
It should go without saying that personally I’m a far bigger fan of MSNBC’s prime schedule than I am Fox News’s. MS has its slant, and it’s chosen to inexplicably give a forum to the buffoonish Al Sharpton, but it remains largely tethered to reality, as opposed to Fox News which is essentially just a bullhorn for conservative propaganda. Still, there’s something disconcerting about the notion of a politically divided country continuing to willfully fragment itself and hear only what it wants to hear. While it’s true that many Republicans these days effectively surround themselves with a bubble that allows in no dissent from outside while amplifying the noise inside — and God knows they have plenty of media outlets willing to enable this ideological isolation — it’s a dangerous thing for everyone if we subject ourselves to only our own views until it gets to the point where no debate can ever take place because we approach each argument with opposing sets of facts. Not opinions — facts. I’m not blaming both sides here, certainly not equally since I don’t think any audience of any other political stripe could be as slavish as Fox News’s, but the end result remains and it’s not good for the country.
We’ll know over the next few days and weeks whether MSNBC’s victory over Fox News was a blip on the radar or is a true shift in America’s cable news viewing habits — and to put things in perspective, even on a great night Fox is only drawing around .3% of the country’s total population — but for now MS gets to celebrate and Fox News gets to sweat a little. And make no mistake — the network’s suits are absolutely sweating. For better or worse, MSNBC gambled on playing to a specific audience, and that gamble may be starting to truly pay off. If it can cultivate even a fraction of the audience loyalty that Fox News has, at least things will finally be interesting in the endless cable news war.
MS is now a brand — just like Fox. May as well come to terms with it: This is the present and future of news.