The Watchman: Divided We Stand, in Search of Truth (and Viewers)

Political divide plays out on television

The country's political divide is playing out on television screens both in unscripted and scripted forms.

Turner’s executive press conference in New York last Thursday (Feb. 16) was a chance for the company’s top brass to give the small group of assembled press a snapshot of where Turner is from an operations, ad sales and content standpoint.

Certainly there’s a lot to talk about regarding Turner, from parent company Time Warner’s pending sale to AT&T (not yet approved by the government) to a preview of TNT’s Feb. 19 NBA All-Star Game coverage. But CNN and its CEO Jeff Zucker generated the lion’s share of inquiries from reporters, given the news network’s recent clashes with President Trump (who held his first, memorable solo news conference the same day) and his new administration.

Despite Trump’s labeling of CNN’s output as “fake news”—or “very fake news,” which he upgraded the network to last Thursday—when coverage has been negative about his first four weeks in office, Zucker said the network’s brand and reputation remains above reproach with viewers and advertisers. He said the network’s biggest brand survey, conducted in January, found CNN’s image has seen “no diminution whatsoever.”

“The CNN brand is as strong as it’s ever been,” Zucker said. “It’s incredibly trusted and we see no impact whatsoever in all of those attacks on the CNN brand.” Zucker said CNN’s viewership is up more than 50% versus a year ago, adding the network couldn’t have posted such high viewer increases just by drawing so-called Trump dissenters. Viewers of all political stripes are tuning in.

The country’s political divide has also affected Turner’s entertainment business. Turner president David Levy said the networks are being pitched “a lot of projects around things that are happening that are about dividing the country. We’re getting a lot of different period pieces that have that confrontation between a divided country, or divided states.”

A nation divided over the practice of slavery during the antebellum era, and the effort of slaves to escape their bondage, certainly permeates the second season of WGN America’s Underground. The new season (starting March 8) introduces Harriet Tubman, as the series’ main characters look to secure their rights and freedoms as Americans against an oppressive and powerful political system.

Underground executive producer and creator Joe Pokaski said the struggles for freedom and personal rights exhibited in the series isn’t that far away from the fight for equality people are waging today. “It’s not so much a correlation as a continuation—I don’t think the war [for equal rights] has been won,” he said. “These things find different ways of creeping up into the worst parts of our hearts .”