Twice this week, I have been nudged to focus on something I’ve been thinking about—but not doing anything about–for some time: the Cable News Audience.

First came the mention in Monday’s New York Times, in a review of the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” of the fact that the combined audience for cable news is small.  In aggregate, it is typically in the 5 million range (there are, of course, bumps at major news events, like Tuesday’s election).  But, as the Times’s writer pointed out, its usually less than 2% of the population watching.  Then, on Wednesday night, Jon Stewart’s guest was Fox News’s Chris Wallace.  In discussing coverage of the election, Wallace pointed out–as other Fox hosts often do–that the total Fox News audience Tuesday night was larger than the combined audiences of CNN and MSNBC.  In fairness, I should point out that the other two play the same game, working hard to find ways to nuance their audience figures to show impressively large figures.

But I found  myself saying, in response to Wallace: “…exactly what difference does that make?”  What does it mean that Fox’s audience is larger than MSNBC’s?  Is it some sort of measure of the political winds?  Surely not, as Fox also won the ratings war in 2008 when it was the Republicans who took the “shellacking.”

So, what does it mean?  My liberal friends have always liked to say that the relative size of the conservative-talk audience is a measure of the superficiality of conservative ideas.  Liberals–we like to think–engage in ideas and rhetorics that are not amenable to articulation in a tabloid format.  So, naturally, conservative audiences for talk radio and cable news will be larger.  As a media scholar, I’d point out that there is a more persuasive class/genre explanation that is arguable as well. That is that lower-SES audiences have always been more attracted to tabloid news–think about its roots in the newspaper industry–and one thing Fox is good at is tabloid news.  They can do a human-interest, or kid/dog or killer bees story better than anyone.  CNN and MSNBC try to stay above that fray, and one of the affects might be the attraction of taste cultures among their audiences that are correlated with political leanings.

But, back to the audience-size question.  I may be more sensitive to this than many of my colleagues in the media studies field because of my long-ago work on Televangelism.  The parallels between the way cable-news proponents tout audiences and the way Televangelists did are striking.  I authored a fairly definitive journal article on this (my first refereed single-author work) way back then, and I think it is time I dug that out and looked again at the whole question in relation to the influence of Cable News in public discourse.

As regular readers will recall, I think this is important because Cable News is far from the most dominant source of television news in America.  First is probably local news, followed by network news.  Still.  But even that raises important questions about influence.

I intend to work on this.  Soon.

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