Dispatches from the front
The Media at War
The remarkable politicization and polarization of American media into liberal and conservative camps is having an effect on competitor’s market shares, particularly in television and radio.
Share of Conservative Mind
First, the successes of conservative talk radio (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) have now gone unanswered by liberal talk radio for years, despite widely-publicized efforts to the contrary. Media analysts even debate whether a viable liberal talk radio format exists.
Then comes Fox News, having established an audience juggernaut first with O’Reilly‘s "The Factor" followed by "Hannity & Colmes", now apparently furthering its lead through its pro-America stance in the Iraq war. Even before the war, Fox’s conservative slant had succeeded in eclipsing Larry King and upsetting the careers of Connie Chung and Phil Donahue. More recently, Peter Arnett became a war-time casualty of conservative censure, and the perceived liberal leanings of network news icons like Dan Rather have been exposed to controversy. The market advantage of conservative opinion seems to reach even into the more obscure recesses of cable programming like CNBC’s “Kudlow & Cramer”.
Critics of this argument may raise the continued presence of Bill Moyers on PBS and NPR programming as examples to the contrary. But these outlets receive heavy government subsidies and are therefore less responsive to audience metrics.
For the moment, at least, liberal-leaning newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post seem to have escaped similar audience declines, perhaps because of a dearth of prominent conservative alternatives. Such giant publications enjoy a sort of duopoly advantage, but we think if they continue or accentuate their current liberal slant, they may eventually induce new conservative competition.
Like large newspapers, Hollywood’s outspoken movie stars would also appear relatively insulated from the economic repercussions of liberal opinion. In fact – since the supply of box-office hit-makers is so limited -- they may exercise even more market power than the large newspapers. Still, who wants to be Sean Penn’s, Madonna’s or Martin Sheen’s agent now? In the following years, we may see evidence of moviegoers passing up blockbusters because a member of the cast took an anti-war stance.
We suspect the Iraq war and its aftermath represent a tipping point in American media audience loyalty, and therefore an opportunity to establish long-lasting market share advantage. While this means that any media outlet, theoretically, may exploit the opportunity, in TV at least Fox appears to have established commanding momentum, particularly if --as appears to be happening -- the US wins decisively and quickly. Another development that would bolster conservative media's fortunes would be clear evidence of banned Iraqi weapons.
What confuses us in this media war within a war is the apparent insensibility of the traditional liberal media to the problem. Even the New York Times recently ran a front page article on the split between liberal college professors and their students, roughly half of whom are said to hold conservative opinions on the war. Of course, students -- or young adults in general -- represent a much coveted media demographic.
So how much is the mainstream media willing to lose before they address the question of the relationship between market share and political belief? While expecting a traditionally liberal outlet to move right overnight may be unrealistic, we think that effective media managers may now be wondering if it is possible to occupy a safe middle ground by cleansing their content -- or their selection of content -- of overtly expressed liberal ideology.
But the first step toward a solution is recognizing the problem. As is evident in a New York Times piece about declining network news market share run after this article was first written, for most media managers that first step has yet to be taken.