In a different era, Erin Burnett might call this a pretty crazy week. In the era of President Donald Trump, it’s routine.
Before returning stateside last week to anchor her 7 p.m. “Outfront” program on CNN, Burnett spent the weekend doing research on the ground in the Middle East. On Tuesday, she wrapped an important interview with Qatar’s U.S. ambassador with just 90 seconds to go before the start of her show — only to find she had to juggle multiple breaking news items about critical national issues, including former FBI director James Comey’s coming testimony before Congress. The frenzy of activity seems to be working: Burnett’s viewership in the demo that advertisers covet for news, adults 25-54, more than doubled in May.
“This is the new normal,” says Burnett in an interview at CNN’s New York headquarters after the June 6 edition of “Outfront.” “There has been no exception to that rule in weeks.”
Burnett’s new normal is something that in the past would have been distinctly abnormal for the nation’s cable-news networks and the big media conglomerates that run them. After a presidential election, so the rule goes, audiences dissipate. According to the Pew Research Center, viewership for the primetime schedules of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC increased 55% to 4.8 million viewers in 2016, while daytime cable viewership grew 36%. In the first half of this year, viewing levels have not shrunk.
Due to the controversies swirling around the Trump administration, many nights feel as momentous for the future of the country as Election Night. In this fraught atmosphere, it’s no surprise that combined viewing of the Big Three cable-news networks — Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC — is up 33% through the first week of June compared with the same period last year, according to data from Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser.
In this endless cycle of breaking political headlines, television news is facing its biggest moment of opportunity since Fox News Channel and MSNBC came on the scene 21 years ago. The competitive fervor among the Big Three to turn these added eyeballs into regular viewers is further stoked by the fact that the longtime market leader — Fox News — is vulnerable after a year of turmoil on both sides of the camera.
Staffs are being pushed to the brink. On many days, Burnett’s executive producer, Susie Xu, logs on to the cabler’s 9 a.m. conference call to pitch stories, knowing full well most of them will have to be scrapped for the latest twist in the Capitol or the White House. On some days, Burnett rushes into her anchor chair for an hour so stuffed with breaking news that CNN cancels or limits the commercials that might let her take a breath between stories.
Burnett’s experience is hardly unique. TV news veterans cite the combination of a country with deep political and cultural divisions and the hyperactive and hyperbolic environment created by social media in addition to the precedent- and protocol-busting White House.
“We’ve never seen a news cycle like this,” says Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor. “We’ve never seen an administration get this kind of reaction from the country. Add to that breaking news of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, and you get a pretty frenetic pace.” Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS This Morning” co-anchor, covered five presidential elections and three presidential administrations during her years in Washington for CBS and NBC News. “The intensity is unrivaled,” she says of the current atmosphere.
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