September 26, 2013

Former president Bill Clinton and CNN's Piers Morgan at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Former president Bill Clinton and CNN’s Piers Morgan at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Former president Bill Clinton can break down a lot of topics, so why not trends and programming logic in cable news? In a chat with CNN’s Piers Morgan that aired last night, Clinton became precisely the 5,432nd public intellectual to bemoan the cable dial’s dubious ongoing project of dividing the country. Said Clinton: “The good news about the media today is that we have more sources of information than ever before; the bad news is we are all of us prone only to go to the places we agree with.”

That was a reference to MSNBC, which the former president said “has grown,” and Fox News, which “had this big base, and I know it’s very carefully done psychologically and substantively,” said the president. As for CNN, Clinton celebrated the network for being more “entertaining without becoming more extreme.” Perhaps the latter, but the former?

In advancing his points, Clinton loves nothing more than to throw out numbers, and vis-a-vis cable news he didn’t disappoint: “You got to have 800,000 viewers in a cable show to break even, and if you get more than that your profits go up,” he said.

Unclear is whether he got those numbers from former colleague Al Gore. Maybe not: Gore was the owner of the low-audience cable outlet Current TV. According to the New York Times, 42,000 people watched Current TV shows on a “typical night” in 2012. Even so, Gore proclaimed on the record that Current TV was profitable “every year.” Further: Cable-news ratings for just about any night reveal a great number of shows that fall short of Clinton’s break-even standard. Are they all fueling losses?

Robert Thompson, the oft-quoted TV and pop-culture expert at Syracuse University, cautions against drawing broadbrush conclusions about profitability thresholds for cable-TV news shows. For example, he says, MSNBC’s newsgathering costs are spread around a conglomerate in a way that complicates any break-even calculations. CNN, too, has multiple revenue streams, and all cable-news conglomerates these days get digital revenues as well. “I don’t know where he came up with that 800,000, but he’s the former president,” says Thompson.

Derek Baine, of the media-industry research firm SNL Kagan, also expresses some misgivings about the former president’s metric:

“Even with their ratings issues, CNN generates almost half a billion dollars per year in cash flow. Like any cable network, they have to carefully allocate dollars to what works, which is a constantly changing process until you find a show that works. When it works, it is typically very profitable and you use it as a lead in and wrap other shows around it. It is very difficult to look at profitability on a show by show basis as you typically use a successful show as an anchor and wrap other shows around it.”

Whatever the former president’s methodology, one point remains beyond quibbles. For putting out such lamentable products, cable news is extraordinarily profitable. A look at profitability by network, via the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

cablenewsprofits

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.