Pity the Poor Talking Heads
There are a bunch of reasons why talking heads have fallen on hard times. For starters, the vast majority of people are disinterested in the subject matter. Politics, as a category, has never been less relevant to so many. But it's not just the category that is driving everyone to reach for the clicker, it's the talking heads themselves and the marketplace they've come to occupy.
As for the heads themselves, has there ever been a more tedious, tendentious collection of self-involved people? When was the last time something one of them said actually struck you as interesting or original? Thankfully, the 2000 Democratic convention may mark their last great collective gathering. By the year 2004, it is likely that the Internet will have deconstructed the market for political news and information altogether.
It cannot happen soon enough. There are four functions that the news media performs. The first is reportage. The second is background or context. The third is analysis. The fourth is opinion. The first function, reportage, has been commoditized; initially by an explosion of media outlets and more recently by Internet technology. Most of us now get our news from the Associated Press or Reuters or the Dow Jones Business Wire. Most television viewers also get their news in "packages" from commodity providers and network consortiums. Original news gathering and the fabled, far-flung foreign bureaus of yore have all but disappeared.
A decade ago, sensing that the market was moving away from them, news organizations hired consulting firms like McKinsey & Co. to help them understand the new dynamics of the news marketplace. They were told that if they wanted to remain competitive, they would have to offer something more than the basic commodity product?news?to their readership and viewers, and that they would have to increase the productivity of their talent. The cheapest way to do that was to add context, analysis and opinion into the mix of offerings. Thus op-ed pages were expanded in newspapers, columnists were added to newsmagazines, commentators became a staple of television news.
Five years ago, the Internet came along and blew apart the news media's value chain. Yahoo! aggregated news and information, analysis and commentary from virtually every extant news source and packaged it into a "home page" service that delivered exactly the news and information one chose to read, in the order one chose to read it, in a constantly updating format. In less than five years, Yahoo! became America's leading news service, obliterating the competition. More than 100 million people around the world now visit Yahoo! every month. That's a "circulation base" exactly 10 times larger than the audience for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather on any given night.
At the same time that big-time navigators like Yahoo! were providing a mass audience with personalized news, everyone else started using the Internet to deliver analysis and opinion to niche markets. Online services as disparate as Slate and The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com arose. Established news organizations got into the act, digitizing their content and throwing it up on the Web. Moribund magazines like National Review rejuvenated themselves by competing through the Web. And in no time, with a click of a mouse, everyone suddenly had access to the highest quality commentary and opinion, available at any time of night or day. All they had to do was get on the Web.
Needless to say, best-customers (those whom marketers view as the most attractive targets for their products) flocked to the Web. That's where the quality was and that's where they went. This cut the legs out from under the traditional media in general and television news media in particular. The tv people weren't in the news-gathering business anymore (everybody already knew what they were going to report). And they weren't nearly as good at the analysis/commentary business as their Web competition. So they went to the only place they could go: down-market. This begat endless coverage of not-news?of O.J. Simpson and celebrities and zone diets and gossip. And as they descended down the ladder of taste and relevance, television news media became indistinguishable from the competitive set it now occupied. The only difference between CBS News' coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and The National Enquirer's coverage of O.J. was that the National Enquirer's coverage was better.
The dumbing-down of television news put the talking heads in an unhappy place. The people they wanted to talk to and influence weren't watching or listening. The audience that remained wanted it to be more like professional wrestling?cheap shots, angry outbursts and hammerlocks included. Which is what is served on the menu today. Shows like Crossfire and Capital Gang and Hardball aren't about analysis or commentary or value-added information. They're about conflict and contention. Talking heads that don't perform accordingly don't get asked back.
Reduced to the role of performance artists, the talking heads have grown twisted and cynical. They know that we know that it's all a shuck. They know that we know they're not providing anything valuable. It's just showbiz. The only reason they keep doing it is ego-gratification and the possibility that it might lead to some high-paying speaking engagements. All the while, the audience continues to dwindle. Less than 375,000 households (according to Nielsen research) tuned into MSNBC's coverage of the Republican convention, despite the fact that NBC lent its most highly valued assets (Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell and Lisa Myers) to the cable service. Generally speaking, cable networks have to average about 750,000 or more households to break even on their programming. CBS' coverage, what there was of it, was an even bigger disaster, given that the network is seen in 99 percent of all households and was once considered the premier television news source in the country. CNN's ratings were also down from four years ago.
This debacle, which will replay itself this week at the Democratic convention, renders the talking heads meaningless. Thirty years ago, Vice President Spiro Agnew raged against the original talking heads, calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism" and effete elitists. He did so at the direction of President Nixon, who thought the heads posed a political threat. No one thinks of them that way anymore. They've become performing seals; all bark and no bite.
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