Where is the NPR of Cable News?

by John Sides on April 5, 2010 · 8 comments

in Media

The title of this post is a question asked by a student in my media and politics class a couple years ago. It came to mind when I was reading Ross Douthat’s column today. (And a tip of the hat to another student in that class, Ben Balter, for forwarding the article to me.) Douthat argues that CNN’s ratings decline can be fixed with “conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting” and that eschew standard red-blue binaries and give “free rein to eccentricity and unpredictability.”

I rarely watch cable news, but that plan sounds plausible enough. Indeed, it actually sounds a lot like NPR, although NPR’s eccentricities are fairly muted, at least relative to Glenn Beck’s (Douthat’s exemplar of eccentricity and unpredictability). Of course, we should distinguish between NPR’s news programming and their entertainment programming. Perhaps the news programming is too stultifying to meet Douthat’s standard. I would describe it as “lengthy” and “respectful.” Certain stories can be “riveting.” But your mileage may vary.

Regardless of my or anyone else’s opinion of NPR, its audience share has grown even as other news sources have lost audience share. Here’s one graph, courtesy of Jon Peltier:


Something in their business model is working. And I have a hard time imagining that NPR listeners won’t watch televised news programming as a matter of principle.

So where is the NPR of cable news?


Joel April 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm

surely we can do better than Glenn Beck as a poster child for “unpredictability.” “Eccentricity” I’ll give you … but I feel fairly confident I can predict his position on just about any topic.

Josh R. April 5, 2010 at 5:50 pm

So where is the NPR of cable news?


I mean that both as a curt answer but also as a substantive one – the political programming on PBS probably better encapsulates the programming model identified in the original post than can be found elsewhere on television.

I wonder if the NPR model would work on television rather than radio – I’m assuming that the costs of producing television “news” are higher than radio (those good looking anchors aren’t going to pay themselves after all), which makes it a less attractive proposition as a cable news format. PBS can withstand low ratings, mostly, due to government support, but an NPR-ed CNN probably couldn’t.

R.G. April 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm

One factor giving all forms of talk radio — NPR included — a boost is that radio is, in the largest portion of the nation, the only remaining broadcast medium: neither cable television nor DTV reaches into vehicle and workplace audio systems. Due to technical issues (“cliff effect” etc.) which have been noted by one Senator in proposed legislation, DTV is available only over cable for much of the nation. Newspapers are not free, which seems to limit their audience to those who believe the content has actual, recognizable value.

As an example, on the rural end of Interstate 66 — roughly 23 miles from the nation’s capitol — residents have access to one broadcast television network (a Fox affiliate) and one (very small) daily newspaper. Both Fox and talk radio seem to have rational business models which lead to the provision of services in otherwise unserved areas: the business model also seems to tilt political ideology, with those not living in dense urban areas hearing a message unheard by metropolitan cousins.

A number of years ago (late ’80s and early ’90s), now-Senator Mark Warner personally funded research regarding the growing communications divide and its effect on the ability of various (close-by) regions to work together.

Dan April 5, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Al Jazeera has probably the best news reporting on television right now. It is just very hard to find on cable, and coverage of American politics isn’t its main focus. That being said, American television news could learn a lot from it.

Ben B. April 6, 2010 at 9:30 am

Josh R. indicated that he believed a big part of the problem was reach (that radio is free and in the workplace whereas TV is subscription and at home).

This caused me to ask a slightly more updated version of the student’s question: “Where is the NPR of the internet?”

If the internet is free and in the workplace, one would expect to see in depth coverage, beyond simply digitizing what has already been printed or broadcast (see, e.g., The Times, Post, Journal, CNN, etc. ). But instead stereotypical workplace browsing is confined to sports, YouTube, etc. Perhaps NPR is just an anomaly?

William Ockham April 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Douthat is incoherent enough that he falsely slammed the one show on TV that does what he wants: The Rachel Maddow Show.

ernie April 7, 2010 at 8:53 am

It might be C-Span.

Franklin April 7, 2010 at 10:18 pm

PBS probably is the closest parallel.

The big challenge though probably is within the media format itself. TV news is image driven — if you don’t have the visuals to produce a segment, then you don’t have a news story. This means that a lot of important quality stories aren’t covered on cable simply because the production values aren’t conducive to covering them.

The production costs too for a cable version of NPR would be off-the-charts expensive (one of the reasons that Fox relies so heavily on commentary and doesn’t have foreign news bureaus).

An NPR style cable program would likely be a huge money loser for a long-period of time.

Frequent commercial interruptions too interrupt the flow of the broadcast making it difficult to sustain a long narrative thread.

Portability is probably an issue too — you can’t watch a show while driving, or doing some other activity.

I agree with Dan regarding Al-Jazeera English. The few segments that I’ve watched on the web tend to be really well put together. It provides a useful supplement for global news — although domestic news coverage isn’t robust. The BBC has some pretty good coverage on TV, the web, and the radio of international affairs and even domestic U.S. politics. Some of its arts and culture programming is first-rate as well.

On balance though, I think the NPR of cable doesn’t exist because the visual medium and the revenue model don’t play to its strengths. What would a visual version of NPR’s programming add to the overall product? In those cases where a story on NPR has an interesting visual component, listeners can usually check out the video on the web at their own leisure.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: