SAN DIEGO, August 8, 2015 – Everyone’s favorite summer reality TV series is back and its ratings are bigger than ever.
No, we don’t mean “America’s Got Talent” or “Naked and Afraid.” The reality TV show that is the Republican presidential primary debates got off to a blockbuster start on Thursday from Cleveland.
There are 17 people in the original tribe, who will stick around until the voters and campaign donors say, “You’re fired!” Meanwhile, viewers are trying to figure out what’s inside those storage unit boxes and whether they should bid on them, only to learn what looked good from the outside were full of nothing but trash inside.
All kidding aside, TV networks figured out in 2012 debates were successful programming choices, for many of the same reasons your favorite shows like “Real Housewives,” “Storage Wars,” “Survivor” and all those talent competitions are so loved by the networks.
Experts predicted Fox News might draw as many as 15 million viewers Thursday night, which would have doubled the highest rated Republican primary debate in 2012 aired on CNN. They were way off. The overnight ratings were jaw-dropping: 24 million people tuned into the debate, by far the most watched primary debate in U.S. history, the highest-rated cable news program in history and Fox News Channel’s highest rated program ever.
Putting this in perspective, the highest rated primetime entertainment show so far in 2015 was “The Big Bang Theory,” with 21.3 million viewers. The debate crushed cultural juggernauts “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.” Only the Super Bowl, a handful of NFL and NCAA playoff games and the women’s World Cup soccer championship had more viewers this year.
Out of this massive audience, Fox News drew 7.9 million viewers in the 25-54 demographic. Compare this to 2012, when just 1.7 million were in the desirable 25-54 year old age range. This is the group advertisers most want to reach and will pay a premium to get their commercials in front of them. The so-called “kids table” debate earlier in the afternoon with seven lower-polling candidates still drew 6.1 million viewers, more than most of the debates in 2012.
Fox News has been the highest rated cable news channel for 13 years straight, regularly crushing its closest competition at CNN and MSNBC. Frequently Fox News Channel is the highest rated cable network in primetime, beating even ESPN, USA, AMC and Discovery.
Fox News gets a barrage of criticism for being biased, partisan, even flat out lying on its broadcasts. This doesn’t dissuade its growing legion of viewers, who grow even more loyal as its critics grow more strident.
Why is Fox News so successful? Because Fox News knows its audience, knows what drives them and knows what they want. Then it gives it to them on a silver platter.
Fox News harnesses a key principle in cognitive science: confirmation bias. Studies have repeatedly shown that human beings have a tendency consciously or unconsciously to seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view of the world. They avoid information that doesn’t match up with what they believe to be true, because the dissonance in their minds is unpleasant. It’s not true only of conservatives, it’s true across the board.
We can’t fix this just by being more “fair and balanced” in the presentation of information. In a famous study, American psychiatrist Dr. Charles Lord discovered people who were provided evidence contradicting their current beliefs rejected it outright. It only hardened their original views in a stunning backfire effect.
Whether you read the “Drudge Report” or the “Huffington Post,” and depending on who you follow on social media, you’d have a completely different impression of how the debate went and who were the “winners” and “losers.”
Here’s the truth for all: none of the networks care about being “balanced.” It’s against their best interests. They identify an audience and serve that audience. Conservative talk radio has done this for years; conservative cable news is now following suit. Networks that try to offer something for everyone end up hurting themselves in the ratings because no one is happy.
Anyone who ever had the quaint notion that news used to be “unbiased” is fooling themselves. Every human being, including those in the news business, has biases. Simple choices about airing certain stories and not giving time to others demonstrates bias (called the ‘gatekeeping effect’), no matter how the subject is treated on the air or in print. Then we confirm those biases by watching. The more we watch, the more we get. Cat videos, anyone?
We then see another principle at play, ‘agenda-setting theory’. The news media may not actually tell you what to think, but they tell you what to think about. Donald Trump had no idea how right he was when he said during the debate that no one would have been talking about illegal immigration until he brought it up.
News programming is the original form of reality TV, and its price tag is relatively low, producing a tremendous bang for the network buck. No wonder the news organizations and networks, religious or not, are praying a contentious Republican primary continues for months to come and they can put many more debates on the schedule until we all cry uncle.
The challenge is keeping the attention of the audience over the marathon presidential primary season. Many Americans are at serious risk of news fatigue. An avalanche of information comes at us, and over a long stretch of time, as in the run-up to a presidential election, we face burnout. People will eventually disconnect to clear their heads. It’s healthy personally, but might not be so healthy for our democracy. Burning people out on politics means fewer of them will bother to vote. They will be sick and tired of hearing Donald Trump insult talk show hosts and talk about immigration by then. This is a far greater danger than watching news coverage perceived as “biased.”
I’ll ration my doses of debates and political news just as I ration how much carrot cake I eat. A taste is great, a whole cake does me absolutely no good.
Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News” when quoting from or linking to this story.
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