TV pundits and reporters may personally be cheering that President Trump appears likely to be booted from office come January, but the transfer of power is bad news for the networks that employ them. CNN and MSNBC saw record-high ratings over the past four years thanks to President Trump, who supplied just the right kind of drama for their wine-sipping audiences.
What will the networks talk about if they’re not melting down over Trump tossing a roll of paper towels during a hurricane relief effort or serving a personally purchased fast-food spread to championship-winning college athletes? Can anything capture the attention of college-educated whites like Rachel Maddow’s bizarre Trump tax return conspiracies or Jake Tapper keeping tally of how many cabinet officials have resigned or been fired (and then interviewing them once they release the requisite Trump-bashing memoir)?
CNN president Jeff Zucker, who recognized Trump’s TV prowess during the 2016 campaign and offered him a weekly show on his network, admitted to Vanity Fair that cable news loses its audience when anchors cut away from constant Trump coverage.
‘We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away,’ he said in 2018. ‘So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.’
The biggest challenge for cable news, then, is finding something else for viewers to obsess over. The Biden administration can hardly fill the outrage gap — left-wing audiences will angrily tune out if reporters appear to be attacking the former VP.
At least right now and presumably for the next couple of months the media can cash in on COVID, what with their death tickers and maps showing the spread in various states. But this will fade too as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines get distributed around the country. Plus the media will not want to focus too much on the body count once Biden takes office, lest they come too close to criticizing his response.
The media has made quite clear already that they have no intention of covering the incoming administration half as aggressively as they did Trump.
‘John Kerry, as secretary of state, would take his guitar on some overseas trips. It appears Tony Blinken could resume that practice,’ Matt Viser, a national political reporter for the Washington Post, tweeted Tuesday.
Politico Playbook underscored how the press will be enjoying a four- to eight-year vacation during the Biden administration, surmising, ‘If the Trump White House was like downing a vat of Tabasco sauce over the past four years, the Biden White House will be like sipping unflavored almond milk.’
PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor could hardly contain her own excitement at the prospect covering President Biden during a press briefing last week, giggling and stumbling over her words before throwing him a softball question for the ages.
If this is the type of ‘news’ being created post-Trump, the cable networks should be very worried — kumbaya campfire songs simply don’t draw viewers. The other threat is the Biden administration’s general freezing out of the press corps. While the media complained about Trump’s hostility toward them, they never lacked in access. Reporters could count on biweekly impromptu press briefings when Trump was boarding Marine One for travel and still heard from him frequently after the pandemic hit. Biden, on the other hand, went three months without a press conference and called nearly a dozen early press lids in the month of September. Reporters who ask fair but difficult questions during Biden’s few press engagements are personally attacked by the former VP.
News networks are about to find out just how hard it is to create entertaining television without relying on Trump’s bravado and natural media instincts. No doubt they will soon start privately wishing for him to return to the spotlight.