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Why CNN could use more angry talking heads
Who needs reporting? A new poll shows that cable news networks do better without it
 
The CNN headquarters in New York City.
The CNN headquarters in New York City. Mario Tama/Getty Images

If television viewers want more unbiased, in-depth reporting, a new poll by the Pew Research Center certainly doesn't show it. The fastest growing cable news network is the one that consists of 85 percent opinion programming: MSNBC. Fox News, which features 55 percent commentary, is still the cable news king.

Where does that leave CNN? It's the only major cable news network to commit more time to reporting (54 percent) than commentary. It also has more bureaus in the United States and abroad than both MSNBC and Fox News combined. But despite its more robust coverage, it's rapidly losing ground to the unapologetically liberal MSNBC:

Even a few years ago, it would have been harder to imagine MSNBC’s top brass positioning themselves in direct competition with Fox, the cable news leader. But 2012 marked the third year in a row that MSNBC has beaten CNN in prime-time viewership, and the first year in which the channel has beaten CNN during the day. It also stands out as MSNBC’s largest viewership ever in both prime time and daytime. [Pew Research Center]

The poll also found that while Fox News and MSNBC saw rising revenues and profits in 2012, CNN's revenues stagnated and its profits fell.

So what's the struggling network to do? It has apparently settled on at least one solution: Bring on the pundits!

In 2007, 30 percent of CNN's programming was committed to interviews. In 2012, that number climbed to 57 percent, while the amount of reporting packages dropped from 50 percent to 24 percent.

As the Chicago Tribune points out, "Interviews with talking heads are cheaper to produce than sending reporters out to war zones or disaster areas. They also tend to attract more partisan figures, who are often eager to put a Democratic or Republican spin on the day's events."

James R. Hood of Consumer Affairs refersto these interviews — often with journalists or TV pundits arguing about politics and current events — as "fast food," inexpensive segments that don't require too much mental energy to watch. Even if CNN does produce more reporting than MSNBC or Fox News, it's not what it used to be, says Hood:

It's fortunate, perhaps, that Pew didn't do a story count. In its heyday, CNN jammed hundreds of stories into each day's coverage. It now selects what might be called a daily "playlist" of a few stories that it grinds into dust by day's end. [Consumer Affairs]

But if CNN wants to play the long game, it may not want to transform into MSNBC or Fox News. The audience for angry talking heads is aging rapidly, with those 50 and older making up "66 percent of Fox's Hannity, 64 percent of Fox's O'Reilly Factor, 59 percent of MSNBC's Hardball (close to 30 percent are 65 or over), and 57 percent of its Rachel Maddow Show," according to Pew. Either younger people are getting their news elsewhere, or too busy looking at pictures of cats on the internet.

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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