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Charles Warner

Charles Warner

Posted: October 29, 2009 04:22 PM

The New York Times and Bloomberg Act as Stenographers for MSNBC on Anti-CNN Coverage

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On Tuesday, October 27, New York Times reporter Bill Carter wrote an article titled "CNN Last in TV News on Cable" in which he gave 25-54 ratings and rankings in prime time for the four cable news networks. He did not indicate where he got the numbers.

Sarah Rabil wrote a similar article on Bloomberg.com posted at 3:18 p.m. EDT and titled "CNN Falls to Fourth Place in Prime-Time Cable News" in which she wrote: "CNN, owned by Time Warner Inc., placed fourth among cable news networks in prime-time audience ratings in October, according to Nielsen Co. data provided by MSNBC."

OK, now we know where Bill Carter got his numbers - the MSNBC flacks had been spinning the story to media reporters and columnists - and Sarah, as a good reporter should, wrote where she got the numbers. Bill Carter didn't, but you know as well as I do what the original source of his information was.

Carter and Rabil acted as virtual, or rather digital, stenographers for the MSNBC public relations flacks, just like the flacks wanted them to. Neither Carter nor Rabil gave much insight into why the ratings might have been the way they were.

When I returned to the Bloomberg.com site at about 7:15 p.m. to link to the CNN story , I noticed it had been updated at 7:58 p.m. and the name of another reporter, Brett Pulley, had been added. The story's headline was "CNN Falls to Fourth in Prime-Time Cable News Ratings (Update1)," was longer than the original one, and mentioned that the ratings information was "according to Nielsen data cited in an e-mail by Alana Russo, a spokeswoman for MSNBC."

At least the Bloomberg.com reporters were transparent about where they got their information, but the journalistic question is "would the story get played to make CNN look bad if it wasn't sold by MSNBC flacks?" and "Do the stories give insight or are the reporters merely acting as stenographers for their source?'

Carter's New York Times story was more insightful and gave some possible reasons for CNN's decline: CNN was down from 2007 and 2008, which were dominated by political news, and because MSNBC and Fox News in prime are filled with opinion programming and CNN, except for the ridiculous Lou Dobbs, isn't. Prime time was emphasized because that's where ratings and, thus, ad dollars are highest.

But neither Carter nor Rabil and Pulley's story made the connection between CNN's rating declines and the drastic change in the news network's channel position on Time Warner Cable in New York, where almost 10 percent of the country's TV homes are.

CNN was moved from the favorable Channel 10 position on Time Warner Cable in New York to the unfavorable position of Channel 78 and Fox's FX network was moved to Channel 10. Why do you suppose this happened? Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that in February, 2007, Time Warner spun off Time Warner Cable into a separate public company?

When Time Warner owned both Time Warner Cable and the Turner Broadcasting System, which owns CNN and HLN (previously Headline News), they were in the same family and CNN got favorable treatment from Time Warner Cable.

But after the divorce in 2007, the newly independent Time Warner Cable wasn't in a mood to be nice to its former family members. After February 2007, Time Warner Cable was in a position to maximize profits for itself, not for its former family members.

I suspect Time Warner Cable instituted a pay-for-play policy and began to charge cable networks for more favorable channel positions. I'll bet Fox sweetened the pot and got FX moved to Channel 10 in New York. I'll bet that MSNBC ponied up, too, and got a more favorable position (Channel 14 in New York), next to its sibling, CNBC on Channel 15. It doesn't look like CNN or HLN (Channel 58 in New York) coughed up enough, if any, money and got buried on Channel 78, which could affect the ratings.

The Nielsen ratings sample is notorious small and, thus, is not terribly stable from rating period to rating period, In October, according to MSNBC's numbers as fed to the Times and Bloomberg.com, CNN in prime time had 202,000 viewers 25-54 and MSBNC had 250,000. Those 48,000 viewers could be a rounding error caused by the change in channel position (although CNN lost in a couple of months to MSNBC before the channel switch) or to sampling error.

But perhaps the larger questions is, "What does it matter to cable subscribers if Time Warner Cable is making more money because of pay-for-play, if indeed it is using this strategy?"

Well, my wife and I pay Time Warner Cable $142 a month for cable and an internet connection, and I can't remember the price of our service ever going down. Well, that's not entirely true; we recently got a measly $1.00 taken off our bill for eliminating paper and paying electronically. But the point is that our cable bills are going up, the service is passable at best (the internet service is fully automated by means of voice recognition and you have to give up two fingers and a toe to get to talk to a real person), and Time Warner Cable is now making more money than ever.

Not what you'd call consumer friendly. No wonder the cable industry is vilified in public opinion polls and shows up lower than even journalists and politicians (and that's lower than whale dung). Consumers are angry, and having the cable companies inconvenience them with senseless channel switches just to make more money is going to make them angrier.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company (Time Warner is number two), is in negotiations to buy 51 percent of NBC Universal from GE. Congress will give this proposed merger close scrutiny because both Congress and consumers are angry, and when they both find out about play-for-play, they'll be angrier, I'll bet.

And it doesn't help when business and media reporters don't scrutinize stories the are fed by PR flacks and act as stenographers for cable company spin.

Follow Charles Warner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CHWarner