Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Behind all the head-spinning change in TV news, from Megyn Kelly to Scott Pelley

If it feels like the world of TV news has turned upside down in the last year, that’s because much of it has.

From the ouster of Fox News founder Roger Ailes in July, to MSNBC taking the lead in prime-time cable news demographics after years in the ratings wilderness, there has never been a year of such tumult.

Nielsen ratings also show MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as the new weeknight favorite of viewers 25 to 54 years of age, the demographic on which TV ad sales are made, across all cable news channels. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly, the former king of prime-time cable news, was pushed out at Fox News in April in the wake of a New York Times story detailing settlements he and Fox made with women who alleged that he had sexually harassed them.

And the changes keep coming with head-spinning frequency.

On Wednesday, CBS confirmed that “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Scott Pelley was out after six years of last-place ratings as the face of its nightly newscast. And Sunday, Megyn Kelly, who left Fox News in January, arrives on-air at NBC with a new prime-time news magazine, “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.” She is already sucking all the oxygen out of the media ecosystem with news that she will be interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin on the premiere.

That kind of headline-grabbing star power reaffirms my belief that NBC made a wise decision in opening its checkbook to her. Beyond her journalistic talents, Kelly has become a cultural symbol for the end of unquestioned male authority, which makes her interviews with men like Putin or President Donald Trump special events.

Kelly, who was widely thought of as the future of Fox News last year at this time, will also be hosting a weekday talk show on NBC starting in September. That announcement triggered even more change in February when Tamron Hall, who was co-hosting an hour of the "Today” show at 9 a.m., left the network rather than be reassigned to make way for Kelly.

The last period of major change in TV news doesn’t compare with this one in terms of volume, pace and dramatically altered personal and corporate fortunes. In a 10-month period from 2004 to 2005, there was sweeping change at the anchor desks of the three major networks: Dan Rather was pushed out at CBS when he failed to verify documents used in a report on the military career of George W. Bush. Tom Brokaw retired at NBC. And ABC’s Peter Jennings died at age 67 from cancer.

Even though that shift marked the end of network anchors as big-name stars, it was not in the same league with what we are seeing now.

MSNBC’s win in prime-time demographics over Fox and CNN was its first since 2000, and the arrow on viewership has been going straight up since President Donald Trump was elected in November. Last month, Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president who some thought was on his way out last year, signed a new, multi-year deal.

And while Fox remained the leader in overall viewership through May, largely the result of its older base, it has lost three-fourths of its prime-time anchor lineup in just eight months. No major cable channel has ever experienced such rapid loss. The only holdover at Fox is Sean Hannity, who recently found himself facing an advertiser boycott, just as O’Reilly had prior to his abrupt departure.

Change of this magnitude is never the result of just one cause. Developments in three realms of American life have converged to so alter the TV news landscape in the last year: business, politics and culture.

Downsized network anchors with shortened tenure like Pelley are the result, in part, of wide-ranging shifts in technology and lifestyle buffeting all realms of legacy media. With a plethora of on-demand digital news sites, there is almost no reason to sit down at the dinner hour and watch a network newscast. Audiences for the newscasts have been shrinking for two decades.

Even though the network nightly newscasts still draw about 23 million collectively, the networks have shifted resources to weekday morning and prime-time news magazines where there are far more advertising dollars to be made. The evening newscasts and the role of anchors are going to shrink even further in the new network business models – especially for last-place productions like “CBS Evening News.”

But the TV industry has been adjusting to such change since the 1990s, when new owners decreed that news divisions would no longer be allowed to lose money under the guise of public service. A larger and more direct force responsible for much of the current change is political.No single force is as directly responsible for the topsy-turvy cable ratings as the new president.

Media have struggled with the way Trump should be covered since day one of his candidacy. Remember the Huffington Post’s infamous decision to only cover him in its entertainment pages?

MSNBC, on the other hand, has found the TV formula. Even as it rebrands its daytime lineup as breaking news instead of left-leaning ideological analysis, Maddow has made her 9 p.m. hour TV’s Ground Zero for the resistance against Trump. No down-the-middle here. And no one on cable TV can match her in progressive credentials. She was born for this moment, and she’s working it for all it’s worth.

Trump has been good for Fox in the opposite way. It has held its core older audience despite all the scandal and talent drain of the last year by adopting an all-in-with-Trump strategy. Short-term, it seems like a sound business decision. Where else are the 63 million who voted for Trump going to turn to hear anything positive about their candidate?

But as the mainstream coverage at outlets like CNN and the New York Times has resulted in more negative depictions of the administration, Fox has doubled down in defending Trump and attacking others for critical coverage.

This is a dangerous place for Fox to be. If the Trump presidency ends in infamy, Fox will be in danger of going down with it. The channel is now joined at the hip to his presidency.

The cultural reason for the TV new shift, though, is the one that matters most. I’ve been calling it the death of patriarchy in some of my columns.

Every one of several huge stories, from the trial of Bill Cosby, which starts Monday, to the ousters of Ailes and O’Reilly, has been about an epic shift in gender relations. It’s been building for decades, but it reached a tipping point in this election cycle with Trump facing off against Hillary Clinton.

Trump, in his vulgar and nasty way, voiced one of the core beliefs of patriarchy on that “Hollywood Access” tape as he spoke with Billy Bush: Men control women and can demand access to their bodies.

It turned out, Clinton was not the woman to take Trump down at the ballot box. But Kelly is perceived as someone who can do so, at least metaphorically, in a TV interview. That’s why her calling Trump out for sexist remarks about Rosie O’Donnell in the first Fox debate was one of the most electrifying and talked about moments of the campaign.

All the change at Fox – including show host Greta Van Susteren leaving to join MSNBC in January and co-president Bill Shine being fired last month – is in one way or another about the death of patriarchy.

Hand in hand with that is the ascension of Kelly and Maddow. I don’t believe it is one bit coincidental. In the symbolism of the small screen, they are both patriarch slayers.

I can’t wait to see how Kelly does with Putin Sunday night.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

“Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on WBAL (Channel 11).

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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