Via TVNewser, I ran across an interesting survey by a company called Solutions Research Group that, among other things, measures a construct they call “must-keep TV.” In other words, they set out to discern not which television channels people watch the most, but which ones they’d be most reticent to give up. Interestingly, CNN turned out to be the top news channel in these rankings (coming in at #22 overall), despite the fact that it’s been regularly trailing in television ratings for years now.
I should contextualize that last statement a bit. CNN is still strong with audiences as a breaking news source and has surged in the ratings recently in the wake of the huge news events of the last month. It may hold onto some of that newfound audience going forward; however the “must-keep” survey was taken in early March, before this recent success. The survey period would, however, have fallen right around the time of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor troubles in Japan, during which viewers also turned to CNN in heavy numbers. For a bit of perspective, however, when MSNBC put out its quarterly numbers in the same month, it was having the best quarter in two years and beating CNN in primetime audience by 20%—despite this, MSNBC didn’t make SRG’s “must-keep” list at all.
In any case, the take-away, for me, is that there’s a distinction to be made between what people pay attention to and what they care about. In our analytics- and ratings-saturated world, we have lots of metrics for attention, but few to measure care. I remember when, toward the end of Ted Koppel’s tenure at Nightline (which in 2005 was extraordinarily relevant, but not terribly competitive ratings-wise), Leroy Sievers, one of the show’s executive producers lamented, “We got to be like PBS. People like to know it’s there. But that doesn’t mean they always watch it.”
I’m not about to sing sad songs about audience behavior. Jeff Jarvis is right when he says,
“Should” is not a business model. You can say that people “should” pay for your product but they will only if they find value in it.
Substitute “watch” for “pay” and you have the ratings system as it currently stands. What I’m suggesting is that there should be more ways to measure value, especially when it comes to journalism. The Internet and cable news ratings have disabused us of both the notion that everyone who has access to news pays attention to news, as well as the assumption that everyone who does consume news consumes anything more than what immediately interests them.
The watchdog role of journalists seems to have depended on these assumptions, and critics worry that the role of a free press in democracy is being undermined as politicians seem increasingly willing to lie openly to their base even in the face of media fact-checks, and fewer advertising and subscription dollars flow to news outlets generally and investigative journalism in particular.
But in a time where there are so many things, online and off, demanding our attention, it’s often impossible to register “caring.” I wish there were a way to register the fact that, while I may not consistently watch, say, Face the Nation, I’m glad that it’s there and thankful for what they do. And if they uncover government corruption, I’d like them to be taken just as seriously as if I watched all the time.
“Must-keep TV” is an interesting measurement in this respect—SRG used it as part of a study on cord-cutting. In other words, they wanted to know what stations are keeping their subjects from canceling cable. The response suggests that people might be willing to pay a bit extra to maintain the availability of something like CNN, even though they aren’t necessarily watching it all that regularly. It’s a sign, perhaps, that there’s commercial value to be had from metrics of care, in addition to metrics of attention. And, while it’s neither a business model nor a blow for democracy, it does give me a little more hope for the news business.