Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reading The Numbers

If you pay attention to such things as TV ratings, they’re in for 2010 and the cable networks. As Fox will be quick to tell you, they did very well.

But there’s a little more to it than just Fox drawing more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. It’s who was watching them.

MSNBC beat CNN for the second straight year among viewers 25-54, and for the first time beat CNN among total primetime viewers as well. The numbers for CNN are truly abysmal, not only compared to Fox and MSNBC, but compared to its own numbers of a year ago. Total primetime viewers of CNN fell by 34 percent compared to 2009.

However, Fox viewership fell as well, declining 7 percent in primetime and 8 percent among primetime viewers in the 25-54 demographic. And to put things in some perspective, “The O’Reilly Factor” drew an average of 3.2 million viewers a night. That makes him the king of cable news talk, but well behind network news shows. With roughly 1 percent of America watching, his numbers also put him well behind cable competitors such as his show’s spiritual cousin, World Wrestling Entertainment, and Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon, both of which often pull 5 million or more viewers.

In addition, “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert both regularly outdraw O’Reilly among the younger demographic sought by advertisers. In fact, it’s striking how old the O’Reilly audience skews (3.2 million average audience, just 781,000 of them between 25 and 54.)

It’s the last paragraph that should get the attention of the people both at the networks and at the ad agencies. Drawing an older audience is not what they’re looking for in the cold cruel world of Mad Men. The money is in the 18-24 and especially in the 25-54 age groups. That’s the group that is starting to earn a living — assuming they have a job — and buy cars, houses, baby stuff, kid stuff, lots of groceries for growing households, and once you break off the family demographics and get into the young singles with influence on the market trends, you really want to sell them everything from cars to Chivas Regal. The O’Reilly crowd still has money, but they’re not spending their paychecks on luxuries; they’re thinking health care and related items (i.e. Viagra) and saving money, not spending it on iTunes or PlayStation.

Related to that is the trend where covering the news and talking about politics is becoming interesting to a younger audience thanks to shows like Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And as Guy Adams in The Independent notes, that is beginning to make itself known.

It’s difficult to say whether Stewart now has as much clout on the left of America’s political spectrum as polemicists such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck boast on the right. But he certainly reaches a sexier demographic. While the average viewer of Fox News is in his seventh decade, fans of Comedy Central, The Daily Show’s cable channel, are mostly under 40.

Online, viewers are younger still. And that’s where Stewart comes into his own: his rapier wit and command of high and low culture might have been custom-designed for the internet. So he gets a relatively modest 1.3 million viewers, in a nation of over 300 million, on TV, but internet viewers magnify his reach exponentially.

Not only is Stewart’s left-leaning take on current affairs easily digested into YouTube-length clips, it is also perfect fodder for influential websites such as Gawker and the Huffington Post, which stream those clips almost daily. In effect, this has made him the Crown Prince of gotcha journalism, 2.0.

Mr. Stewart’s impact was felt with his “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington in October, and most recently for his work in helping to get the James Zadorga Act, a bill to provide healthcare for 9/11 first responders, passed by Congress. Through his show, including his December 16th episode that devoted the full broadcast to the subject, he pointed out the hypocrisy of the Republicans who had claimed the events of September 11, 2001 as their own and labeled anyone who dared question the patriotism of the brave men and women who risked their lives as traitors, only to have them filibuster the bill to pay for the healthcare of the first responders who are now suffering long-term and, in many cases, terminal illnesses from their work at the site.

So where does this leave Stewart? In the short term, it gives him a minor PR problem, since he has always maintained, against all available evidence, that he has no political clout, and should not therefore be described as a journalist. He even told the placard-wielding hordes at his rally in October that it was “not a political event in any way, shape or form”.

Now, of course, Stewart’s influence has been laid bare for all to see. After almost 11 years at The Daily Show, he must face the consequences of exerting that influence, good and bad. He may be a professional funnyman but he also now carries a burden of responsibility.

“Jon Stewart isn’t just a comedian. Even though he styles himself as such, and keeps telling everyone ‘I’m not a politician’, he’s overtly political in a lot of what he does,” says James Rainey, a media commentator for The Los Angeles Times. “It’s now obvious to everybody that he has a lot of power and some very bright people behind him.”

I think that’s giving Mr. Stewart more credit than he himself would accept. The 9/11 bill was not controversial. It should have passed both houses of Congress unanimously, and in any other political climate, it would have done so within a day of its introduction. The amount of the bill’s cost is a rounding error in the entire U.S. budget, and it was fully paid for. However, we’re dealing with the current GOP who is in the thrall of the Tea Party, and therefore it takes on all the sanity of the characters of Wonderland where Yes is No and Up is Down and heroes of the worst terrorist attack in American history become leeches looking for a government hand-out. That is what inspired Jon Stewart to take up the cause: were not for people dying, it would be hilarious, and it was the Republicans who fought it that made it so. They asked for this and Mr. Stewart, ever the gentleman, accommodated their wishes. Had the Democrats engaged in such stupidity, he would have done the same to them. Indeed, he’s been as rough on the Obama administration as he has on the Republicans. It may just seem like he’s gone light on them, but that’s just because when it comes to making complete jackasses of themselves, the numbers don’t lie: The Republicans and their associates such as the Tea Party and Glenn Beck have done far better at that than anyone else.

HT to Steve Benen and CLW.