The magic's gone

What will the all-news networks do now that the McCain and Bradley dramas are over?

Published March 13, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

Anyone old enough to remember the "Ed Sullivan Show" knows that Ed always saved the best for last. Each time the Beatles appeared, for instance, there were what seemed (at least to my 10-year-old sense of time) endless delays as Ed, before each commercial, would say, "Coming up, the Flying Wallendas, Topo Gigio, comedian Shecky Greene and -- the Beatles!"

Who always appeared in the last five minutes.

Primitive, but effective. Today we would just tape the show and fast forward to the Fab Four. But Ed, the old vaudevillian, knew how to keep the kids from touching that dial. As bored as I was with the other acts, it never occurred to me to tune in during the last five minutes.

Today, in the wake of the double-withdrawals of Sens. John McCain and Bill Bradley on Thursday, people at TV news networks must be wondering how to keep viewers coming back now that the star attractions have come and gone.

I know, comparing John and Bill to John and Paul is a stretch; staying in the '60s musical context, they're more like Simon and Garfunkel, Bradley as the airy Art and McCain playing the more mercurial Paul. (They're the right respective heights, too.) And the "drama" of the Bradley challenge had, of late, all the suspense of an episode of "Scooby Doo."

But it was the two insurgencies that had made this a horse race (or two) and now those ponies have left the stable. How do you keep the people tuned in when the best reasons for watching (in the conflict-equals-story sense) have dropped out? How many of you watched the coverage of the "Western Primary" on Friday? And how many of you stumbled on it by accident, thought it was a rerun, and headed back to Comedy Central?

"I think now the American people go largely into power-save mode until around Labor Day," says MSNBC anchor Brian Williams. "People are already thinking about summer rentals and not John McCain's health-care policy."

Those who still care about whether or not McCain had a health-care policy long after the senator is back in Washington, dodging government cars, will probably keep watching no matter what. They're politics and policy junkies -- "wonkies," if you will -- who never met a round table they didn't like. ("I'd love to take a poll of the members of Congress and their staffs and see how many of them are our viewers," says Williams.)

Ratings-wise, Regis and Darva have nothing to fear. "The story from a strictly ratings standpoint is a bit strange," says an insider at Fox who wished to remain anonymous. "For the first time in a long, long time the networks have made somewhat of a recovery at the expense of cable. And the five news services on cable have suffered audience erosion over the last few months."

This is not just compared to last year, when the news channels still had impeachment fallout and Columbine to feed off. This is a current phenomenon.

Take the ratings for Super Tuesday, for instance: CNN had 1.8, Fox News Channel 1.0 and MSNBC 0.8. On Thursday night (the evening of the anti-climactic McCain and Bradley announcements but otherwise kind of a slow news night), CNN boasted a 1.2, FNC 0.6 and MSNBC 0.3. ("A rating point is equal to the amount of homes in your universe," explains my source, "so a rating point in cable is an unequal measure. CNN is in 78 million homes so a rating point is 780,000, and we are in 46 million homes so a rating point is 460,000, and MS is in 55 so a rating point is worth 550,000.")

All of this comes as the Washington Post reported on the decline of "The McLaughlin Group." The round-table-as-food-fight (the model for so many shout-a-thons of today) has lost 40 percent of its viewers inside the Beltway over the last five years, and 10 percent nationally over the same amount of time.

Has that bellicose format played itself out? Does the man Dana Carvey so deftly limned now have too many sincere flatterers? (Shows like CNN's "Capital Gang" were oft seen in prime time during the primaries.)

WRONG! Don't count McLaughlin out just yet. "I think that father John still has the power to pack a room," says Williams. He believes there will always be viewers for the McLaughlin group format. "I think we have programs that qualify and they do pretty well."

The other major complaint about the cable news coverage of the primaries could be called the usual-suspects syndrome. Bill Kristol, Margaret Carlson, Tucker Carlson ("Have you two met?") -- is there no one else in this great land of ours who can comment intelligently on the political process?

A fair hit, says Williams. "I picked up the phone at 1 o'clock in the morning two nights ago and called my senior producer, Jean Harper and said, 'I'm watching a pollster on C-Span that we haven't had on the air, a new voice I haven't seen before.' I am always, always looking for new voices and I would like to think we go against the grain on that score."

Well, I'm ready. I've been interrupting people for years and always try to win arguments by shouting. Plus, I've got more pop culture references than Ted's got Koppel.

But I'm sort of hoping for something more surprising, someone who can react to the canned political events of the coming months with something other than the requisite cynicism we journalists bring to these things.

Besides, the parties themselves have a much tougher row to hoe in keeping people's interest. They'll stage events (and, as we get closer to November, fend off assaults) in plenty of time for spin and counter-spin on the news channels. It may not be enough to keep us all amused, but it will sate the wonkies until the rest of the electorate returns in the fall.

So power-save to the people for now. Or, as Topo Gigio used to say, "Hey, Eddie, kees-a me goodnight!"

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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