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Finders Keepers: Cable News Now About Going All-In on One Story, One Narrative

Concha: Cable News Now About Going All-In on One Story, One Narrative

This is a breaking news alert: CNN, Fox and MSNBC all have their specialties.

For CNN, it’s still breaking news despite the (correct) move to offer more taped programs (See: documentaries) in later hours of primetime…a time when the day’s news has been thoroughly reported and analyzed to that point. The proof is always in the numbers, and every CNN documentary offered up recently has been the highest rated show for the network that day or night in both the demo and total viewers (usually finishing ahead of MSNBC but behind Fox). But big breaking stories, particularly those that help the network leverage its international resources, is where CNN’s bread will always be buttered during dayside and early prime.

For Fox, it’s continuing to maintain the balancing act between breaking/hard news and commentary. Find me someone who beats Shepard Smith in delivering the former, win valuable prizes. The ability to improvise in a factual and oftentimes candidly charming way (for lack of a better term) is almost an anomaly in news both network and cable. In this regard, there’s Shep, and there’s everyone else. And when day turns to night, the commentary topics–which lean right–and presentation of such are invariably chosen wisely and offered up with passion and at the proper pace. Agree or disagree with the overall narrative…the decision making on which topics make the cut and which ones don’t by producers and anchors alike in putting together a program is impressive. Fox’s hosts sell them and sell them well. The numbers prove it, even among younger audiences.

For MSNBC, it’s all about progressive politics and no longer pretending to care about breaking news, which may prove to be a sage decision. Know this: The Boston bombing was very well done by MSNBC when the network wisely leaned heavily on the mothership that is NBC News and particularly the great Pete Williams in the field. But the network saw the Nielsen results for breaking story after breaking story—and it wasn’t pretty compared to Fox and CNN. So it decided to go all-all-in on political stories and narratives instead.

The old saying is you can’t kinda get a girl pregnant. That’s basically MSNBC’s philosophy on breaking news in 2014. The network may give hard news a fair amount time when the story is unavoidable (like the missing 777 plane), but by no means is any story that doesn’t involve Democrats or Republicans going to win even 15 minutes of any hour. Note: This isn’t a criticism, just a perspective on where things are going.

The proof of this trend couldn’t be more perfectly expressed during Wednesday night’s 8:00 p.m. EST hour. On CNN, Anderson Cooper took the baton from Erin Burnett and continued blanket coverage of the missing 777. Burnett’s Outfront did it basically for the full hour, Cooper continued the theme. As did Piers Morgan

Compare that to Fox, where Bill O’Reilly didn’t touch the plane story (leading with a Gallup poll on what Americans worry about most), and even opting for a packaged Best of Miller Time segment (Dennis Miller) during the show’s E-block (about 45 minutes in). As for MSNBC, the lead story was host Chris Hayes explaining how the Democrats’ Special Election loss in Florida really shows just “how fraudulent the entire conservative uprising during the Obama years has been since the very beginning.” We’ll leave reaction to that fascinating analysis for the fun folks in the comments section below.

So here you have three cable news shows going in three very different directions. This wasn’t the case even a few years ago, when all would likely be trying to do the same story (the missing 777). Now–at editorial meetings held every day at each network to lay out content strategy–it’s a matter of, “Look…this plane situation is CNN’s baby. Let them have it in primetime. We need to give our audience what they come here for every night. We need to offer something different.”)

The result has been a considerable ratings bump for CNN (easily beating MSNBC but falling short of Fox), which has struggled in this department since the Chris Christie scandal broke.

Speaking of which, in the Christie instance, CNN and MSNBC both initially covered that scandal heavily (the latter still does), with Fox showing modest interest. But once it was apparent Christie was MSNBC’s baby, CNN punted instead of playing second fiddle. Ultimately, MSNBC got its ratings bump, and continues to squeeze the Christie orange for every last drop. Almost night after night, Bridgegate was/is the lead story on MSNBC. Not because it’s the most important news item out there, but because the political landscape for Democrats isn’t something the network’s progressive audience wants to hear about in too much detail: Impending doom in the midterms, Obamacare’s continued failures/delays, the President’s lame-duck status and sinking poll numbers…

Then along came the Ukraine crisis, which—for the same reasons the network is all-in on Malaysia—CNN, like that old game when running to a car and securing the passenger seat, called shotgun first. A quality piece by Mediaite’s Andrew Kirell breaks down the time and resources spent on this story nicely here.

As we head into Thursday night, CNN gets at least another four days of missing plane coverage thanks to a new Wall Street Journal report that the 777 may have flown for four hours after going off radar. The mystery grows…and so will CNN’s ratings thanks to being Missing Plane HQ since the story broke almost one week ago.

The only question is…what if the plane is never found? As pointed out by CNN’s Tom Foreman Thursday morning, if the WSJ report is true, the search area is now larger than the continental United States (See: almost impossible to find). It’s almost unprecedented: How does a network pivot out of such a big story with no closure, no ending? The answer is unclear. What isn’t is that folks will continue to tune–at least for the time being while events continue to unfold—even if most of the reporting is built on speculation.

It used to be that CBS, NBC and ABC used to fight to win the same big stories.

Same deal for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

But each on the cable side has chosen its niche…decided precisely where its bread is buttered.

News on the latest Obamacare delay? Go to Fox.

News on Gov. Christie? Lean Forward.

News on a missing jet? All three will provide the latest, but only one is going wall-to-wall day and night. If you’re interested in that story, you know where to go. If you’re looking for something different, you also know where to go.

And when the next big story comes around, it may be MSNBC going wall-to-wall. Or Fox. It’s simply a rotation of what narrative falls into what wheelhouse on a particularly day or week.

Such is the specialized state of cable news in 2014.

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