The Triumph of Spectacle

57 Channels

The changes Hawk sees in America’s civil discourse are related to the shifts Professor of Journalism Jim Schaffer has studied in American news media. It wasn’t so long ago that ABC, CBS and NBC were in a three-way battle to reach the majority of American TV sets with the evening news. This dynamic of three large and powerful news sources jockeying for the biggest possible audience encouraged the networks’ evening news programs to appeal broadly. Straying from the political middle at 5:30 p.m. risked shrinking any network’s piece of the pie.

Fast-forward to today, Schaffer said, and you see a very different dynamic. Several 24-hour news channels vie for smaller and smaller slices of that American pie. Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 song, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ on)” seems almost quaint in an environment where many households now surf through several hundred.

Attracting an audience in this busier media environment requires a different skill set. Think of how you’d get someone’s attention in a library. Now try using the same approach in a nightclub. Today’s news channels must be noisier, flashier and more spectacular to grab viewers.

While the three big networks competed in the past over their 30-minute evening programs, cable news channels must fill 48 times the space each day. And they certainly don’t have 48 times the resources with which to accomplish it. Hedges described how many institutions are winnowing staff and closing foreign bureaus. In this environment of stretched resources and lengthy timeslots, the day’s spectacle echoes again and again and again in a frenetic effort to hold eyes and fill time.

The increase in the number of media players means that news sources have given up on reaching a majority via the center. “There’s no longer the need to appeal to a broad audience,” Schaffer said. Instead, “they’re looking for niches.” News outlets work to foster loyalty in a certain demographic. They plant their own flags and call on the likeminded to join them.

American audiences decry media bias and then seek out the sources that most consistently articulate their own. They find a wide assortment of flags to choose from. In this environment, “news is easily customizable,” Gilligan said. There’s comfort in this culture of custom-fit news. Loving your station means never having to change the channel (or your mind).