White House race offers rare cable news ratings surge

4 min

New York (AFP)

The 2016 White House race is generating record audiences for cable news networks -- thanks in large part to controversial Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who has dominated the media's election coverage.

But will the increased viewership, which comes after several tough years for CNN and its competitors, last beyond election day in November?

"I think they really have Donald Trump to thank. He's been a gift from the heavens to these people," said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg school of journalism.

The 2016 campaign is "bringing back cable news from near-irrelevancy," he said.

During the first quarter of 2016, for the first time in the history of US cable TV, a news channel -- Fox News -- garnered more viewers than any other basic cable station, excluding optional cable networks such as HBO.

The same general trend holds true for news veteran CNN, which witnessed its highest viewership in seven years in the first quarter. And third-largest news channel MSNBC had higher viewership figures than at any other point in the past three years, according to figures provided by ratings firm Nielsen.

The increases go well beyond what is traditionally seen every four years during presidential campaigns.

Meanwhile, the price to air a commercial during a Republican debate on CNN in September was 40 times higher than the usual rate, according to US News & World Report.

"On the Republican side, you have candidates that are engaging in the sort of personal attacks and wild references and statements that make for excellent television," said Dannagal Young, an associate professor in the University of Delaware's communications department.

At the center of the personal attacks is none other than Trump himself, who has offended everyone from Muslims to women to Mexicans to Heidi Cruz, the wife of his main rival Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Fanning the flames, news programs have "oriented their entire program into making it into a 24-hour Trump reality show" Kahn said.

For Young, it's no longer a campaign focused "on where the candidates stand on issues, but a focus on who's saying what, who's attacking who, who's ahead in the poll, how are they going to deal with this new scandal."

President Barack Obama indirectly warned against the trend last week when he accused some in the media of letting the candidates dictate campaign coverage.

"A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone," Obama said.

- 'Flash in the pan' -

The spike in ratings for cable news networks is only expected to last the duration of the campaign, until November 8 -- or perhaps just until July, when Republicans and Democrats will choose their candidates.

"I think it will decrease with the election, substantially. I think when we move out of campaign mode and into governance mode, the tone changes," said Frank Sesno, a professor of media, public and international affairs at George Washington University.

The campaigns have halted a definitive downward spiral for the cable news channels, which saw viewership drop nearly 19 percent between 2009 and 2014.

But experts warn the audience spike could be short-lived.

"This is a flash in the pan. This is not a long-term strategy to help cable news rebound from what has been a circular downward trend," Kahn said.

Cable TV, a universe where three major news channels vie for viewers, "is a shrinking market," he said.

Those stations -- Fox News, CNN and MSNBC -- are losing audience as viewers turn to other forms of media, especially the Internet and social media.

During the campaign, the challenge for these networks is to make themselves legitimate and sought out by young voters.

"For millennials and younger people who are politically interested, Twitter and social media is where they go for breaking information," Young said.

"But MSNBC, Fox and CNN all have very active contributions to Twitter. So in many ways, they're still at the center."

Kahn warned that cultural change for the networks "is very, very difficult to pull off."

Beyond a pivot to the Internet and social media, the channels do have one hope left: a Trump presidency.

But the likelihood of such an event is yet to be determined.

"If it's Trump, shareholders of the cable news networks are just going to thank the gods above," Young said.