January 6, 2009
Cable News Goes to Gracelandby J. Max Robins
Those thinking that the most exciting race for the White House in modern history would lead to a higher level of discourse on cable news should think again. Less than two months after the election and only weeks away from the inauguration of Barack Obama, the number one news personality among the 25-54 demographic is... CNN Headline News ambulance chaser Nancy Grace.
Pounding away nightly on the Caylee Anthony murder case, where the two-year-old victim's mother, Casey Anthony, stands accused of taking her daughter's life, Grace has hit a ratings jackpot. Fox News's Bill O'Reilly may bring in more total viewers, but Grace is chipping away at his lead as of late and besting O'Reilly's nemesis, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, too.
Grace's ratings ascension is evidence that we're back to the good old bad days of cable news—a steady diet of murder and mayhem. Indeed, Grace's recent resurgence may be our post-election reality check. Instead of talking about where this country is headed and what the challenges are, we're being fed gruesome details about how a little girl's life ended, with Nancy Grace playing judge, jury, and executioner.
Some media brass, with an eye on the bottom line, will embrace this return to the scene of the crime as manna from the news gods. Grace's former Headline News colleague Glenn Beck, now at Fox News, will swim easily in these waters. Likewise, it's a comfort zone for Fox's O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren. To that whole crowd, the sensational murder or celebrity trip to rehab has to seem like a better formula for success than railing against a popular president-elect whose honeymoon is likely to last at least the proverbial 100 days.
CNN's Larry King will also happily play in the same sandbox. Anderson Cooper will get dirty, too, but he won't enjoy it, and it will likely stall the progress he made during election season when he reached first place in the 25-54 demographic at 10 pm. My guess is we won't see too much more of CNN's ubiquitous slogan: "The best political team on TV."
Two players who could get hurt in the ratings if crime keeps paying are MSNBC's Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. While Maddow will delve into the occasional whacky story, she is unlikely to steer away from her pointed perspective on political and social issues or sully her hands with gruesome murder stories. Olbermann, who aborted his first tour of duty at MSNBC back in 1998 after having to focus his program on the Lewinsky scandal, would certainly balk at going tabloid.
Meanwhile, Nancy Grace may express true grief and outrage for the Caylee Anthonys of the world, but when she looks at the Nielsen ratings, her tears are likely to be ones of joy.
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