NPR and Cable

John Sides had an interesting post a few days ago noting that one of the most successful media models of the past decade has come not from the web but from good old National Public Radio:


Something in their business model is working. And I have a hard time imagining that NPR listeners won’t watch televised news programming as a matter of principle.

So where is the NPR of cable news?

I have a few thoughts on this. One is just to note that in a market with relatively few firms and relatively high barriers to entry, you should probably just expect conservative decision-making and bad business practices. If there were 1,000 different companies running cable channels and starting a news station were easy, everyone would try everything and we’d see what works. But cable isn’t like that. After all, it seemed obvious to me and to many liberals for years that the lesson MSNBC should learn from Fox News is that it would make more money by offering a liberal counterpoint network. But MSNBC executives initially drew the opposite lesson and tried to run a second conservative network. Recently, they’ve shifted in the more sensible direction, but only quite slowly and still with more airtime given to former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough than to Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman combined.

The other is that CNN actually does produce a more NPR-esque network in the form of CNN International. I have no idea how many people would watch this if it were widely available in the United States, but a definitely prefer it’s calmer, more relaxed tone to the extremely busy and panic-inducing style of US cable networks. I’m not deeply familiar with the economics of cable providers, but it seems to me that with hundreds of channels now available, it shouldn’t be so hard for CNN to get content that it’s already producing anyway out to a larger number of people.

Last, in response to Kevin Drum I’m not really sure what’s so liberal about NPR except by wingnut rules whereby anything that isn’t an organ of the conservative movement is per se liberal. Morning Edition seems like very normal “Democrats say x, but Republicans say y” news coverage, and Marketplace is kind of Economist-style highbrow center-right. Other shows may tilt the other way, but I take it that NPR has a large audience precisely because it doesn’t narrowcast to an ideological niche market.