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In Covering a Historic Race, Who’s Got the Most News Mojo?

Related: TVB: Stations Have ‘a Lot of Runway Left’ for Political Coin

It was a summer like no other, at least from a news perspective. A nation would love to soon forget the murders involving police  officers, the gun violence, the acts of terrorism overseas. And all the while, a presidential race like none other in American history makes its own history each day, hurtling toward a momentous conclusion in November.

If ever there was a time for a TV news outfit to show its mettle, it is now. “It’s an almost unprecedented news cycle, from the election to terror to the other things that are percolating,” said Seth Geiger, founder and copresident of media consultancy SmithGeiger. “The news cycle brings more people into the tent, and a lot of brands benefit from it.”

But which is best equipped to rule the news going forward—rethinking the half-century-plus old TV news paradigm and delivering quality content on all platforms, at all hours? With the help of a panel of TV news experts, B&C set out to gauge which news brand has the most momentum heading into election season.

This much we know: The elite TV news outfits are much more interested in what news delivery will look like tomorrow than what it looks like today.

The Best of Broadcast

Morning news on broadcast TV was an $809 million business last year, according to a Pew Research study, with more than 13 million daily viewers in play. The heavyweight title fight, of course, pits ABC’s Good Morning America against NBC’s Today. GMA typically wins in total viewers, while Today takes the demo ratings race. From Sept. 21–Aug. 14, GMA averaged a 3.5 Nielsen household rating while Today stood at 3.4. (While it’s growing, CBS This Morning was a distant 2.6).

Among viewers 25-54, NBC was on top with 1.8 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen, ahead of ABC’s 1.6 million and CBS’ 1.1 million.

The two leaders offer contrasting styles  in delivering the morning’s news. One agent referred to ABC’s approach as “news-o-tainment”— splashy headlines about celebrities and crime and trending stories plucked from social media to balance the meat and veg. Another insider described a “populist, supermarket tabloid” game plan that ABC has “executed really well.”

While there’s also plenty of softer stuff in the Today rundown, the program has increased its focus on hard news. “Today spent a bit of time trying to be like GMA,” said a respected TV critic. “But they’ve gotten away with that and are trying to be more like themselves.”

Another panelist mentioned CBS News taking its 60 Minutes crown jewel and spreading some of that magic news dust around the newsroom. CBS may even own the most respected brand in broadcast news—“old-school journalism, a lot of integrity,” said a top news talent agent—but it’s a distant third in the marquee races. “They’ve made gains, but it’s not as if they’ve significantly eaten into the leaders’ advantage,” a prominent former network news figure said of CBS.

CBS did win plaudits for John Dickerson’s work on Face the Nation (it was tops among Sunday a.m. shows in 2015) and the network’s digital strategy, foremost the CBSN live stream that has Josh Elliott as its centerpiece. “They’ve leapfrogged over cable,” said news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “The incremental costs are minimal, and it’s a way for their young talent to get confidence and experience.”

The evening news programs on broadcast did not get nearly the viewership bump that their cable counterparts received. As unsexy as the category may be, it remains a $375 million business, per the Pew study, and its aggregate 23.9 million average nightly viewers last year was up a tick over 2014’s. ABC had visions of unseating NBC when Brian Williams was banished from Nightly News chair, but that’s not been the case. Season-to-date through Aug. 14, per Nielsen, NBC has averaged a 5.7 household rating and 8.6 million total viewers, ahead of ABC’s 5.5 rating and 8.4 million viewers. (CBS stands at a 4.7 HH and 7.1 million viewers.)

NBC was also on top ion the 25-54 demographic, averaging 2.1 million viewers, with ABC at 1.9 million and CBS at 1.6 million.

“They’re stronger with Lester [Holt] in the chair than they were with Brian in the chair,” said Geiger.

Broadcast talent getting raves included ABC News’ Diane Sawyer for her gets and George Stephanopoulos for his political savvy, NBC’s Matt Lauer for holding down the lucrative Today franchise, and Univision’s Jorge Ramos for his dogged reporting.

Univision, in fact, was deemed “dominant” in Spanish-language news by one panelist. While the number of Spanish-speaking households is growing dramatically—there were 38.4 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. in 2013, per the U.S. Census—the panelists did not put Univision, or Telemundo, atop the broadcast leader board.

A humming Today, the biennial boost from the Olympics, and an improving cable news channel extending the brand and providing a farm team give NBC News the advantage among broadcasters, opined the majority of our panel.

Cable’s Most Able

On the cable side, Fox News Channel continues to be a ratings monster. Aided by convention interest, FNC finished July atop the heap of cable channels with an average 2.18 household rating, ahead of CNN’s 1.33 million.

The internecine battles at Fox News Channel, which saw Roger Ailes ousted following allegations of sexual misconduct, have been painstakingly detailed. The unseemly headlines for FNC have not subsided, yet many feel FNC will stay on course for the foreseeable future. “Rupert Murdoch will maintain the status quo,” said one TV news agent. “Everyone there knows their roles.”

Through it all, Megyn Kelly emerged as  even more than a star anchor. “She’s a household name now,” said Tyndall. “Only the news junkies knew her name before.”

The Fox News brand remains one of the strongest in the business, for better (passionate viewers that tune in often, and for long spells) or for worse (those who view it as a GOP soapbox). “It very clearly stands for something among the news audience,” said Geiger. “Yet a large share of news viewers find [what it stands for] abhorrent.”

Pundits gave NBC News chairman Andrew Lack high marks for steadying MSNBC’s once listing ship, getting the network focused on breaking news at the expense of partisan punditry. “I see a lot of energy at MSNBC,” said a media consultant. “There’s a strong sense of brand.”

While Brian Williams will get his own nightly show, The 11th Hour, leading up to Election Day, most panelists felt he has yet to assert himself in cable land. “It’s not like he’s had insights that no one else had,” said one critic.

CNN, meanwhile, established itself as nothing less than a force during the conventions. In July, it won the 25-54 demo in cable news, averaging 568,000 viewers, and grew 219% in the demo over July 2015. Combining ratings from both conventions, CNN averaged 5.47 million viewers (Fox News was at 4.9 million and MSNBC  3.62 million), and 1.910 million in the 25-54 demo (FNC was at 1.24 million and MSNBC 1.1 million).

“Jeff Zucker has taken politics and put them on steroids,” said an agent who represents major news talent. CNN has staked its reputation on playing it down the middle and blanketing breaking news. It’s an iffy proposition when the news cycle is languid, but that’s hardly the case anymore.

“CNN has done a great job associating itself with the election,” said a former network news honcho, echoing multiple panelists. “They’re getting amazing ratings.”

Panelists Prefer

Pitting the top broadcast news outfit against the premiere cable news outfit is something of an unfair fight. Broadcast is limited to a couple hours in the morning, 30 minutes in the evening, the Sunday-morning slots and assorted specials and breaking news. Limited only by the hours in a day, cable floods the zone on the curious plane crash, the Trump tirade, the most recent blast of gun violence.

“The energy in TV news is in cable,” a former news chief said. “If you’re in the business of covering news, you want to be in business 24/7. You want to be in the game as much as possible.”

CNN is, by almost all accounts, crushing it in the news game. But the strategy of Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, sagely goes beyond that. Bets on personality-driven shows from the likes of W. Kamau Bell, Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock, along with specials such as The History of Comedy and The Nineties, are a hedge against those times when the news cycle lulls. “Their expansion into non-news programming should help cushion the blow after the election,” said a former network news chief.

The pundits also give CNN high marks for its mobile strategy. That includes Great Big Story, a standalone platform for offbeat mini documentaries shot around the globe that represents a fresh take on storytelling. According to comScore, CNN had 130.8 million unique web visitors in July, up 23% from the same month a year before. ABC News’ online operation, which gets a bump from the Yahoo home page, outpaced CNN by 1.35 million visitors, up 7%. NBC News (including MSNBC) was at 105.7 million, CBS News at 90.6 million, and Fox News at 63.2 million.

“It’s clear that CNN has beefed up its digital,” said a TV critic. “It’s pretty robust.”

Other Players

Several other news outfits got mentions from our panel, including PBS (“Stuck in the ’70s”, decried one news buff), Al Jazeera America (“What were they thinking?”) and even John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. “Jon Stewart was a political satirist and media analyst,” said a critic. “Oliver reports on the issues and takes them beyond where Stewart took them.”

HLN was barely mentioned, while Vice News, which debuts a nightly newscast on HBO Sept. 26, garnered some curiosity. The quintessential outsider, Vice was unsparing in its assessment of TV news when the nightly program’s start date was announced. “The nightly news hasn’t changed its format in 60 years, whereas the way most viewers—particularly younger viewers—consume information has changed dramatically,” said Josh Tyrangiel, executive VP of news content at Vice.

While Vice has shown a knack for channeling the millennial zeitgeist, panelists mostly shrugged off the company’s news chops. “Why don’t they go make documentaries?” said one. “They don’t need a daily, or even a weekly, presence.”

Yet some non-traditional news players absolutely have the attention of our industry pundits as they contemplate the future of TV news. “In terms of the sheer amount of news video delivery, it’s Facebook and Snapchat,” said a former cable news leader. “Twenty billion video views a day—it’s hard to beat that awareness, that presence.” (According to recent statistics, Facebook gets around 8 billion video views a day and Snapchat around 10 billion.)

As the torrid summer of news turns to what portends to be a similarly scorching fall, more and more people will learn the latest on a breaking story from social media—not from an anchor’s throaty baritone. “You could make the case for Facebook,” said Geiger of the dominant news brand. “It’s where the majority of Americans first learn about a news story.”

What Is Mojo?

Our handy Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines mojo as “A power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.” A force that is, by definition, intangible is a difficult thing to measure. In order to deduce which TV news outfit is harboring the most mojo, we crunched Nielsen ratings and comScore traffic numbers. But mostly we relied on the testimony of a dozen TV news business insiders—former network chiefs, top talent agents, consultants, analysts and critics—to get their take on the hottest brand in TV news heading into fall. They factored in ratings and revenue, social presence, on-air talent skill and star power, network strategy and other key ingredients in a thriving news brand. Sources were offered anonymity to assure a candid response.

Our panel’s opinions were just that—more gut feeling than science. Readers’ opinions can, and will, differ.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.