The Growth and Impact of Cable News

There was once a time when the news operated as part of a “cycle.” Initially, the newspapers determined this cycle, since papers could only be printed and distributed daily. The news came out once every 24-hours or more.

When radio came onto the scene, this concept remained. Daily news programs would air in the evenings, updating people on world events. Every so often, there might be special news bulletins when something major happened. Yet, in general, the news was delivered once a day.

Then came television. Initially, this “news cycle” stuck, but it all changed in 1980 when a man named Ted Turner took a chance and launched the Cable News Network (CNN).

The first-ever 24-hour news television station, this channel made it possible for people to watch the news all day long. From there, the news cycle has been shrinking constantly, to the point where there no longer is one. The moment something happens, you can read or hear about it in several places seconds later.

Besides changing how quickly we learn about what’s happening in the world, cable news has had many other impacts on society.

Here’s a brief history of how we got to where we are today, as well as how cable news has changed the way we see and understand the world.

Cable News Networks Around the World

Before we go into the history of cable news and the impact it has had on society, here are some of the major cable news networks in the United States, as well as some facts about each one:


Together, these three (well, four if you count HLN) networks make up the bulk of the cable news landscape in the United States. However, the US is not the only country with cable news.

Here are some facts and figures about some of the largest cable news networks from around the world:

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Other well-known cable news networks from around the world include RT (Russia), Telesur (Venezuela, though it serves much of Latin America), and DD (India).

Clearly, cable news is not just an American phenomenon.

However, there is one major difference with these international channels, and that is they are geared towards a global audience. In the US, the market is mainly domestic, which allows these channels to have an even greater impact on society.

A Brief History of Television News

Cable news as we know it today falls under the umbrella of television news, however, there was a time when television news was a novelty in American society. Before then, people relied on newspapers and the radio to hear about the events of the day.

While one could easily write an entire book on the history of television news, here is a quick history of how we as a nation went from consuming news by reading and listening to watching TV:

From this timeline, we can see there are a few major moments in the history of television and cable news.

First, the switch from 15- to 30-minute shows in the early 1960s really changed things. It showed that people were becoming more and more interested in the events of the world and that they were willing to sit and watch the news for longer periods.

Looking back, it’s funny to think that 30 minutes was a long time to watch the news since now you can do it for days on end!

In addition, during the 1960s, the United States was fighting in the Vietnam War. During this conflict, reporters could send video footage back to news networks in the US, bringing the war directly into American homes. This was not only captivating footage, but it also helped elevate tensions around the war since people were more informed than ever. It also set the stage for even more television news coverage.

When CNN launched in 1980, few expected such a network to succeed, but it slowly grew an audience until exploding with its coverage of the 1990-1991 Gulf War conflict. Again, war seems to be an important factor. Part of the reason CNN could cover this so well is that it was the only news network with reporters in Iraq, giving it an important edge in the network news competition.

The World Trade Center attacks of September 11th also helped make cable news more relevant, but there was a growing trend: partisanship.

MSNBC attracted a considerable audience during the early 2000s as it became the go-to news outlet for the growing anti-Bush movement that developed throughout his presidency.

On the other hand, Fox News Channel grew its base by pandering to the other side of the political spectrum, and it grew even more during the Obama era, doing basically what MSNBC had done a decade prior.

In a matter of just a few short decades, cable news went from being a blip on the radar to Americans’ top choice for their news, transforming the way news was reported.

The concept of a “news cycle” had all but disappeared since these channels were all able to report on events as they were happening. This, plus the rise of the internet, made it more and more difficult for newspapers and other independent news organizations to remain competitive. This led to a consolidation in the number of news outlets, a phenomenon discussed in greater detail later on in the article. 

Cable News Viewership Over the Years

While CNN was the first cable news network on the scene, and while there were no other similar channels, it dominated. However, Fox News Channel surpassed it relatively quickly after launching and held its number one position for almost twenty years.

In general, cable news viewership has remained relatively stable since around 2005. Here is a graph of how things have shaken out since CNN first started facing competition in the mid-1990s:

There are a few things to note from this graphic. The first is Fox News Channel’s meteoric rise to the top.

After launching in 1996, it reached a million average viewers just four years later, a number neither CNN nor MSNBC had hit until the past decade.

Another thing worth mentioning is the boost all the networks received in 2020. Between the Coronavirus, the pandemic flipping life upside down, and the tempestuous 2020 presidential campaign, there were lots of reasons for people to glue themselves to their TV sets. This led to a massive spike in viewership for all three networks, and these channels became some of the most watched cable channels in the entire country.

For most of the year, Fox News Channel held the top spot. In fact, during the pandemic, Fox News Channel was airing the five most watched cable news shows in the country, with programs such as Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Five, The Ingraham Angle, and Special Report with Bret Baier all receiving over 3 million daily viewers.

Fox Loses Its Top Spot

However, what’s perhaps most interesting is that in early 2021, Fox News Channel lost its grip on the top spot. This was largely due to its coverage of the 2020 election results, as well as the insurrection that took place at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.

A key reason for this was the channel’s decision to continue to play to claims of election fraud that pretty much only former President Donald Trump and his most loyal supporters were purporting. No independent agency found any evidence of election fraud, yet Fox News Channel continued to report this story.

Eventually, those who continued to believe in this narrative, emboldened by the president and the information presented to them by Fox News Channel and other right-wing media outlets, stormed the US Capitol Building in what amounted to a violent attempted coup.

From that point on, Fox News Channel has seen its viewership drop significantly, The channel is also facing lawsuits from the Dominion Voting Systems, the company that made the machines that were so often the target of unsubstantiated election fraud claims.

Whether this will hold moving forward remains to be seen. No matter what happens to their ratings, this serves as an important reminder of the impact cable news networks can have, when they are inherently biased because of their business models, and they drift too far to one side of an issue.

This is not only an issue with Fox News Channel, but such an occurrence is simply the best real-life example we have.

The Impacts of Cable News

Over the past half-century, cable news went from being nothing more than a short 30-minute nightly news broadcast to a 24-hour cultural phenomenon. In the meantime, it has dramatically altered the face of journalism, for both the better and the worse.

Journalism and the press have always been an important part of American society. Press freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution because the Founders felt a free press was an important check on power, a tool to help make sure no one person or group became too powerful.

In addition, the press should help inform citizens about what is happening in the country and the world. In theory, this makes them more educated members of society. The more educated people are, the better democracy works. Theoretically.

So, the big question is, how has cable news impacted the press and American society? Has it helped? Hurt? A little of both?

This is up to you to decide, but here are some of the major impacts of cable news.

A More Informed Public?

Cable news makes it possible to find out what is happening not only in the country but also in the entire world.

In theory, this should mean that cable news helps make society more informed. However, there is an argument to be made that the information being presented on 24-hour cable news networks is not all that relevant to the decisions we as citizens need to make, leading to a potential information overload, as well as increased partisanship.

To keep people engaged, cable news networks will report on pretty much anything. Since they all have their specific audiences, the most effective thing to report on is what resonates most with these audiences. Therefore, it becomes a real “quantity or quality” situation. We have more information to work with, but how useful is that information?

Because of cable news, most people now know more about the world than people living even just twenty or thirty years ago. It’s just a matter of what they know that is in question.

The “CNN Effect”

First coined during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, this refers to how cable news broadcasts can impact government decision making and policy. Because people can now see what is going on in the world around them minutes, if not seconds after it happens, we are much more aware of what policymakers and other leaders are doing.

This helps to increase accountability, for if they are doing something wrong, we find out about it quickly.

It can also make it difficult for policymakers to do their jobs because it encourages reactionary behavior from the public. Sometimes, decisions made in government take time to be fully understood, but the cable news cycle can cause us to overemphasize certain developments, hindering the policy’s effectiveness.

Often, whether we consider this a good or a bad thing depends on where you stand in society. For those making decisions, the CNN Effect is a challenge. For the rest of society, it’s a way to keep power in check, so long as people are informed enough to appreciate nuance and not overreact.

Consolidating News Sources

Cable news ultimately made news very profitable. By broadcasting 24-hours a day, and by cultivating popular prime-time shows, these networks make a lot of money.

However, in doing this, they have dramatically altered the news landscape in the US and the world, mainly by attracting the attention of mass media conglomerates and multinational corporations.

To give you an idea, around 90 percent of news media outlets in the United States are currently owned by five (5) companies: COMCAST NBC Universal, Disney, ViacomCBS, News Corporation, and AT&T.

If we rewind to 1983, the same amount of news media outlets were owned by 50 companies.

The reason behind all of this consolidation is money. Most smaller news outlets can’t keep up with the speed of reporting from CNN and other cable news networks. Faced with bankruptcy, these companies must either shut down or sell to a larger conglomerate.

Another factor is the decline in newspapers. Many of these media companies in business back in the 1980s were locally owned newspapers. Between cable news and the internet, few such outlets exist anymore.

All of this means that Americans are getting their news from decreasingly diverse sources, which limits the information they have access to and can have a dramatic impact on shaping the public dialogue.

Incomplete Journalism

Another consequence of cable news is that journalism is becoming less and less complete. At its core, good journalism should report a story from all possible angles, providing readers/viewers with a complete snapshot of the issue so that they can draw their own conclusions and inform themselves.

However, since there is no more news cycle and news outlets are under such tremendous pressure to get stories out as fast as possible, it has become almost impossible for reporters to cover a story in its entirety.

This means that the news that makes it to people’s eyes and ears only presents one or a few sides to the story, which has a dramatic impact on how people understand and interpret the issue at hand. In theory, we should always take the time to look deeper into the news stories we read, but not everyone has the time or skills to do this, placing some serious restrictions on the news we read.

Echo Chambers and Influence

Along those same lines, to produce content so quickly, and to remain profitable, cable news networks have become increasingly partisan. Fox News Channel is most popular among republicans, whereas CNN and MSNBC are top choices for Democrats.

The consequences of this are twofold. First, those who already lean one way on the political spectrum often only get news that caters to their worldview, creating an echo chamber that strengthens their views and making it hard for them to see issues from other sides.

When this happens, people harden their stances, and it becomes much more difficult for society to unite and work on issues collectively.

The other consequence is that slanted cable news has the biggest impact on those who don’t already have a strong opinion. This means that the opinions these undecided individuals have on an issue can depend heavily on where they first learn about said issue, which is problematic since we already know that most news outlets don’t/can’t present their stories in a fully balanced and nuanced way.

Therefore, while cable news is helping to educate people, it is also limiting their ability to form fully developed perspectives on the issues at hand.

In the end, this is no one’s fault. In theory, it’s up to every individual to inform themselves. Yet how the news industry is currently set up, it’s often rather difficult for people to do that, and this has wide-reaching consequences throughout society.

The Future of Cable News

As we saw in the graphs above, cable news, despite its record year in 2020, has been plateauing over the past few decades. Thanks to the internet, there are now more places to get information than ever before, which begs the question: are we coming to the end of the cable news era?

Some have argued that cable news is where newspapers were a few decades ago, desperately competing for an audience that is rapidly turning elsewhere. Just like cable TV isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon, cable news is likely here to stay for some time. And the impacts that will have on society? Well, only time can tell us that.



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