With the election 10 months away, the GOP field is as wide open as Donald Trump’s mouth; the situation across the aisle—while far more quiet—remains similarly unresolved. An awful lot will happen in presidential politics between now and November, and that’s terrific news for TV news. The broadcast nets may be going through an existential crisis, believes Andrew Tyndall, editor of news watchdog Tyndall Report, but the election lands in their sweet spot.
“It’s gold for them,” he says. “They know what to do with this.”
Fully 18 million watched the Republican hopefuls debate on CNN Dec. 14. Those numbers being on par with an NFL telecast, it’s clear just how much interest there is in who will end up running the country—and in who’s currently leading the polls. “It’s inflammatory statement after inflammatory statement,” says Tyndall. “It’s catnip for the news organizations.”
Trump, who took swipes at Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly after she moderated a debate in August, took to Twitter again in mid-December to question her intelligence. If—and it’s a big if—Trump wins the nomination, will he and FNC make peace?
The three main cable news channels are up in total viewers for the year: Fox News Channel 3%, CNN 23%, and MSNBC 1%, according to Nielsen, as of mid- December. And each horrific new mass shooting sparks a renewed debate on gun control; all of it generates news tune-in, a pattern that looks to continue in 2016.
NBC hits the year in strong shape. After Good Morning America’s historic streak-breaking, NBC’s Today is firmly back in first place in the key demo, and is poised to hold serve for the foreseeable future. Bringing Andrew Lack back as news group chairman has stabilized the ship. GMA wins total viewers, but its breezy formula is losing its charm. “You just don’t need that second slice of birthday cake,” says one news vet of ABC’s sugary content. “One is fine.”
Perhaps the most intriguing story is CBS This Morning. Up 8% in total viewers year-to-date while the others are down (NBC -5% and ABC -11%), it shows there is an appetite for hard news, even at sunrise.
Bringing Back Brian
The NBC halo extends into evening news, where anchor Lester Holt has been the face of a seamless transition following Brian Williams’ truthiness tribulations. There’s no reason to think Nightly News will surrender that lead in 2016.
Williams’ September return, as a breaking news anchor on MSNBC, has barely registered. That may not be a bad thing. In mid-December, Williams was back on NBC, filling in for Holt, talking about Los Angeles schools being shut following a terror threat. It’s baby steps for Brian. “It’s been a quiet return to air,” says one TV news vet. “Maybe he’s ready to come out of stealth mode.”
Lack made revamping MSNBC a top priority, focusing more on breaking news and less on partisan punditry. Fox News Channel-continues to dominate that space, but MSNBC’ s viewership is up, and so is morale.
In the coming months, Vice launches a daily half-hour newscast on HBO. The challenge for Vice is retaining its punk ethos—one-man bands in muddy boots, delivering edgy reports from shadowy corners of the globe— in a daily setting. “Can they keep their bad boy, outsider image,” says one senior TV news vet, “and still be a viable source for legitimate news?”
Electoral politics doesn’t play to Vice’s strengths; the bearded Brooklyn boys are better off putting their resources into the human misery stuff as they find their footing.
Other wild cards that will make things interesting in 2016—Sinclair making a national play by acquiring and rebooting news app Circa, and giving veteran journalist Sharyl Attkisson a big platform with Full Measure; whether Yahoo can bring Katie Couric out of the witness protection program; and the continued dysfunction of Al Jazeera America. Late last year, the channel’s general counsel was found to be unlicensed to practice in New York—yet another misstep as Al Jazeera America quixotically seeks to build trust with a dubious public.
This much we know—there won’t be a lack of news for the news nets to cover in 2016.