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Ben Johnson

The Downside of Fox's Conservative Consolidation

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Posted on October 20 2009 9:08 pm
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There is a peril in Fox's conservative consolidation

Not necessarily all good news, for Fox or Dobbs.

Over the weekend, I recounted news that Lou Dobbs may leave CNN for Fox Business. With Fox’s acquisition of John Stossel and Tucker Carlson, NewsCorp entities are well on their way to becoming the home of most conservative television personalities. This leaves CNN with Dobbs, Bill Bennett, Ed Rollins, and sorta Republican David Gergen; MSNBC has Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan.

Properly executed, the move could benefit everyone: Dobbs is more ideologically at home with Fox, and FB would gain Dobbs’s unmatched financial reporting and the viewers he would bring to the struggling network. If Dobbs could connect with as sizable an audience there as at CNN, it would be a win-win situation. But there is a definite downside to this conservative consolidation — for Fox, the commentators, and conservatism.

Fox would love to boast that it had gained virtually the last remaining center-Right news program on any competing network. However, a shrewd programmer has to arrange his talent for maximum ratings. Television and radio are different than the web, where unlimited virtual space means one can simply put up a new link or add a new website for a budding star. Since there are only so many hours of prime time in broadcasting, eventually someone who would anchor a prime time show on another network may end up being relegated to an undesirable time slot. Even in this era of TiVo, that means drawing an unnaturally small audience and making less of an impact than he would elsewhere.  Since rational organizations give the greatest influence and rewards to those who draw the most viewers/readers, an overabundance of talent can mean first-rate employees receive second-rank treatment. In other words, poor scheduling leads to buried talent, which is bad news for the commentator.

For the network, having several personalities with a single outlook leads to topic (and conclusion) redundancy. As readers of this blog know, that is why MSNBC is so dull. (Four hosts, including one rebroadcast, all saying: “Blue Dog Democrats are evil! The town hall protesters are Astroturf, tea-bagging racists!”….) The alternatives are viewpoint diversity or the network micromanaging each show to avoid tedium. This is part of Fox’s advantage: it also employs center-Left commentators like Juan Williams, Alan Colmes, Bob Beckel, Geraldo, and (I’ve always assumed) Greta. On MSNBC, one is only left to guess whether tonight’s guest will be from The Huffington Post or Nation.

If Fox acquires all the name conservatives, that gives the other networks even more incentive to neglect conservative coverage, because Fox is (as the White House is currently crusading to portray them) “the conservative network.” As it stands, CNN viewers are exposed to center-Right views at least two hours a night, and FB programming is conservative at that time, as well. If Dobbs is replaced by a center-Left anchor, it circumscribes the range of opinion and of news consumers who come into contact with a different point of view. If a line-up change gives networks cover to fortify a single-viewpoint commentary, that’s a loss in its own right.

Finally, if Dobbs does not get as many viewers on Fox Business as he did on CNN, it will be construed either as a failure of Fox Business or a rejection of Dobbs’ message, either of which will be construed as failures of conservatism.

These concerns will probably remain hypothetical. Even if Dobbs makes the leap, having two networks to program should provide sufficient flexibility — to incorporate Dobbs. But down the road, there must be more outlets, less commentary, or the inevitable onset of the law of diminishing returns.

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