Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Cable news: who cares?

Why do we care about O'Reilly?

The recent news coming out of the perennial war of ratings among cable news channels was shocking, I tell you, just shocking: CNN, which three decades ago invented the whole business of cable news, is now dead last in terms of prime time viewership!

The numbers speak clearly: in October, CNN averaged 211,000 daily viewers aged 25 to 54 (the people who matter, because they have money and the inclination to buy what the advertisers sell), against 221,000 of HLN (formerly known as Head Lines News, ironically, a CNN spinoff!), 250,000 of MSNBC, and a whopping 689,000 for Fox.

Things don’t look any better for good old CNN if we look at the performance of individual anchors: Anderson Cooper’s show was dead last at 211,000, while Keith Olbermann was at 295,000, and Bill O’Reilly beat everyone at 881,000 (this is total viewership, regardless of age bracket — notice that O’Reilly is particularly popular with the old white male cantankerous crowd...). The only consolation for Cooper, but not for CNN, is that Lou Dobbs could interest only 162,000 viewers with his cheap populism and anti-immigration rants.

Now, we could be spending our time decrying the fact that Americans seem to have a strong preference for opinionated editorializing (be it Obermann or O’Reilly) over real solid news. Except of course that CNN hasn’t offered real solid news in a long time. Or we could bemoan the fact that a vitriolic ideologue like O’Really totals almost three times more viewers than the equally ideological but far less vitriolic and infinitely more sane Obermann.

But that would be missing the real story. Let me give you some othernumbers for comparison, so that we can put things in proper context. The total adult population of the United States is 231 million, which means that even O’Reilly is not actually followed by more than 0.4 percent of the population. The daily readership of the much dreaded (by O’Reilly) New York Times is about 1 million, the audienceship of the beleaguered (by Republican-led budget cuts) National Public Radio is a whopping 6.5 million daily. For crying out loud, even Jon Stewart’s Daily Show beats O’Reilly hands down, with an average viewership of over 2 million, and a peak performance of 3.6 million!

So the real question is: why do we give a damn, as a nation, about what O’Reilly, Obermann, Dobbs, and company say? Why do these people have the power to affect national debates about health care, wars, and the environment, while clearly more reasoned voices actually get much more attention, and when the overwhelming majority of Americans are paying no attention at all?

The latter, of course, is the answer. Yes, O’Reilly’s power derives in part from the dollars that advertisers “invest” on his programs, and in part from the fact that we live in a society where those who shout — even when they are a small minority — get to dictate the terms of the “discussion” to the rest of us (witness the inane spectacle of last summer’s “town hall meetings”).

But it is us who let them do it, largely through apathy. Progressives in this country could count on an overwhelming majority of votes if the majority of eligible voters bothered to vote. A few weeks ago, instead, even in New York City — where there are more political activists than in almost the entire rest of the country combined — a tiny fraction of voters turned out for a runoff primary that for all effective purposes decided the election of a crucial political post like that of City Comptroller.

Republicans know this and act accordingly. Years ago the Christian Coalition devised their “12.5% strategy” to control the country. They reckoned that less than 50% of Americans go to vote, and that the fraction is about half that at primaries, which means that a candidate only needs half again of that (i.e., slightly above 12.5% of the total) to win the primary, which often means winning the general election. It worked, until recently, when the Obama machine turned out unprecedented numbers of minorities and poor to vote during the last presidential election.

Americans are so full of themselves that one of their favorite mantras is that they are “the best democracy in the world,” while actual comparative sociological studies show that the US only ranks below the middle of the pack in terms of quantitative measures of democracy (including, of course, voter participation). As the near certain reelection of Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City next week attests — despite the fact that the guy shamefully overturned a term limits law that would have barred him from running a third time — this is simply, the best democracy that money can buy. And what do we do about it? Instead of getting mad and throwing out the clowns, the ideologues and the rich people who think of politics as their personal pastime, we change the channel and watch reruns of Two and Half Men. We truly deserve, then, the little we get from our political class.

More from Massimo Pigliucci
More from Psychology Today
More from Massimo Pigliucci
More from Psychology Today