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Jun 27 / King Kaufman

Why this week’s cable news failure may be cause for hope

A gripping drama played out in the Texas Legislature Tuesday night as state senators filibustered and battled over a restrictive abortion bill, a raucous crowd of protesters in the galleries disrupted the proceedings and a midnight deadline loomed, then passed. It was utter chaos, and it was riveting television.

More accurately, it was riveting video. It wasn’t on television. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know I think this is somehow relevant for sportswriters.

As the major so-called 24/7 cable news stations re-ran their prime-time shows, more than 180,000 people tuned in to the statehouse in Austin via the Texas Tribune’s YouTube channel. Sara Morrison of The Wrap has an excellent recap of the events.

In a piece headlined “In Texas Filibuster, YouTube Stands Up While ’24/7′ News Fails,” Time magazine media writer James Poniewozik pointed out that even though it was late at night, after prime time except on the West Coast, huge numbers of people were “watching legislators argue over Robert’s Rules of Order and who properly held the floor.”

The late-night drama exposed a reality of 24/7 cable news: except among the biggest of all news events, it’s really more like 18/7, maybe even 18/5. Past prime time, the major news channels turn to reruns or go essentially on autopilot. As midnight approached in Austin, political observers were watching a nailbiter on YouTube; but on cable, you could see an interview about Iraq on Fox, a climate debate on MSNBC, and, toward the end of Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, a report on an attempt to ban the wearing of saggy pants.

A photo made the online rounds that showed CNN’s Piers Morgan talking to Dr. Drew Pinsky about the calorie count of a blueberry muffin—while the Texas Senate was in full meltdown. It was the media equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

Note: CNN, like Bleacher Report, is owned by Turner.

So where’s the lesson in this failure of the 24/7 cable news networks to cover a major news event, presumably, if Poniewozik is right, because it happened at an inconvenient time for them?

Well, it seems like a disaster, like the industry as we know it is falling apart. The customers are out here—nearly 200,000 strong in the middle of the night!—hungry for something that the cable news networks aren’t giving them.

It’s at times like this when I get the most optimistic. That’s because I know that a failing segment of the news industry can’t continue the way it’s going. I’ve lived through that as newspapers stuck their heads in the sand and ignored the internet in the ’90s. Well, I lived through part of it. I got out in 1996. 

Something’s got to give. Either TV news will figure it out or, more likely, something will take its place, or much of its place. Maybe we’re already seeing social media, and news organizations that leverage social media, doing that.

After all, it was more of a curiosity than a hardship to me that I couldn’t watch the drama unfold in Texas on my TV. I was just fine watching the livestream on my laptop. I’d have preferred having it on the tube so I could use my computer as a “second screen,” but I can fix that any time by replacing my TV with another computer, or figuring out how to get a computer feed on the TV screen, which I’m told can be done. 

The point is, one way or another, the times they are a-changing, even still, after the crazy-fast, even chaotic change of the last 20 and especially the last five years. Whatever the news eco-system is going to look like a few years down the road, the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it will look different than it looks today. 

And if you’re struggling to get your start, to find your place, that can be a good thing. Because if things are going to look different, that means there will be something new. Keep your eyes open. Be smart and alert and open-minded. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble latching on to the old model. You might be a part of that something new.