It takes only a couple of moments of plugged-in time to notice it: The 24-hour news cycle. And it’s not just about news broadcasts. The term also refers to the effect on scheduling in a nonstop world where media outlets like television stations are constantly chasing news stories at all hours, striving to spread information as rapidly as possible. Unlike the early days of television, when news and other programming fit neatly into a schedule and broadcasters had time to digest the latest news before airing it, today’s television pace runs at breakneck speed. The transformation of the news cycle and the concurrent effects on television scheduling have wrought lasting changes in the medium – changes that are, if anything, likely to accelerate in the coming years.
The birth of the 24-hour news cycle dates to the launch of CNN in 1980. When Ted Turner introduced the new cable news network, he told reporters that “this news network is going to make another option available which hopefully will be one that is enlightening and informative as opposed to all the entertainment that we have at the present time,” as related in an NBC broadcast at the time. In theory, the rise of 24-hour news stations like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC should have been a true boon for in-depth news coverage. Freed from the narrow time constraints of network broadcasts, and staffed with a near-army of trained news-gathering professionals, these stations had the resources to analyze stories and find news that other outlets missed. Moreover, the news channels could offer a depth and perspective unmatched by the major networks, which are most identified with their entertainment divisions.
As we know, though, that hasn’t quite happened. Much like their broadcast counterparts, the three major news stations fight endlessly for ratings and influence. (As summarized by Mediaite’s Matt Wilstein, Fox News held a clear edge in viewership over its cable rivals in 2014.) Sensationalism, shallow coverage, and intense partisanship dominate the airwaves as often as not on the news networks. While multiplying television’s ability to respond to breaking stories, the 24-hour news cycle has paradoxically made much television news content less deep – diminishing rational discourse while emphasizing strong personalities and vigorously held positions.
The rise of the 24-hour news cycle, which smashed the old model of scheduled nightly network news, has more or less coincided with the growth of cable, satellite, and streaming video. While the first two have served to fragment the once-dominant broadcast networks’ market shares, the third directly challenges television itself. Both streaming video and the widely available digital video recorders (DVRs) chip away at the traditional advertising-based revenue stream of television. They also make possible asynchronous viewing – viewers can watch programming when and where they want, not based on the schedule dictated by television. Media consumers can now pick what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, and where they will watch it. Each program is now just one of hundreds of choices on the menu, and for many Americans, they’re not buying.
So, what does the future hold for television? The classic television model is fading fast – viewers today simply have too many options for any traditional program, no matter how well made, to approach the broad cultural reach of past TV icons (like Andy and Barney here).Networks continue to derive big income from sources like NFL broadcasts, but their grip on the entertainment industry shrinks by the year. Upstarts like Netflix and Hulu sniff blood in the water. Accordingly, companies with major operations in network broadcasting (such as Comcast, owner of NBC) are taking action to ensure that they have a stake in numerous media forms – cable, internet service, film production, and the like. Like other media companies, broadcasters are finding the acute need to evolve or perish in the machine-eat-machine marketplace of converged communications.