Extended Interview: Gail Shister
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: When you look at the competition between the cable news channels, and particularly look at the numbers in January, what do you make of it?
GAIL SHISTER: My own opinion about this is that Fox has gotten more viewership, in addition to having more distribution outlets, is the fact that their news is just plain more entertaining in prime time if you look at their line-up.
Take a guy like Bill O’Reilly; conservative, liberal, make up your mind about that. The fact is the guy’s great showbiz. His shows are fun. They make you angry, they make you laugh. They’re never dull. He pumps up the decibel level, as does their entire prime-time lineup
And I think the difference between CNN and Fox News Channel in the primetime area is not necessarily they’re doing different news, I think [Fox is] more entertaining. That’s what people are flocking to. By that time of the night, they basically know what has happened during the day.
They’re looking for something different, they’re looking for a showbiz aspect, if you will, more of an entertainment value — which is what CNN is getting into later in the game by hiring people like Connie Chung. They’re trying to get marquis, showbiz people to draw people into the tent — Paula Zahn going to Fox News Channel and then going back to CNN. You can say all you want about news being the star at CNN. I would dispute that to the death because, clearly, they’re not going in that direction.
TERENCE SMITH: In other words, instead of the news being the star at CNN, now the stars are the stars.
GAIL SHISTER: Right. The stars are the stars. The new stars are the stars. I mean, you don’t go after a Connie Chung-type personality unless you’re willing to pay big bucks, and you’re basically buying her not only for her news expertise, but her marquis value, and can she punch tickets.
And you don’t have a guy like [Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System] Jamie Kellner, who is a tremendous showman, running a news network, being the person in charge, basically, of the news network, unless you want to bring in entertainment value. Garth Ancier, who is Jamie Kellner’s number two, basically invented Ricki Lake. Those two guys together invented Fox Network, broadcast network, entertainment. They know how to create glitz and how to get people into the tent, and obviously they’re putting their imprints on CNN.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of the philosophy of that; in other words, making the stars the stars, rather than the news the stars, really making over CNN?
GAIL SHISTER: I don’t think they have a choice at this point. They were the undisputed king of cable news for many years, and now you’ve got the upstart Fox News Channel, which only launched in 1996, and even with their increased distribution, is in 9 million fewer homes than CNN — and they beat [CNN] in January. And you can spin the numbers every way you want, and believe me the publicists at all of the cable news networks have become human tops on this one, but the bottom line is more sets of eyeballs are watching Fox News Channel throughout a 24-hour cycle and in prime time than CNN. So CNN really doesn’t have a choice.
Another point is that you can argue that there are no such things as news stars, but I don’t buy that for a minute. When you look at the big three broadcast networks, ABC doesn’t promote “World News Tonight”, ABC promotes Peter Jennings. CBS promotes Dan Rather. NBC promotes Tom Brokaw. The bottom line is your organization has to put a face with its news. The same way that they sell any movie or any TV show, you’re marketing it by the stars.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the significance of Fox’s win, in terms of viewers, in January?
GAIL SHISTER: You could argue that viewers are clearly looking for an alternative to straight news — which is what CNN and also MSNBC, to a lesser degree, have been offering for years — that viewers want, they want more entertainment, they want more “oomph” in their news. I was watching Fox News Channel the other night and I actually had to turn the volume down on my set, and then it suddenly occurred to me, not only do the Fox people talk louder, but I would bet that their mikes are amplified higher than mikes are on the other networks to be louder, to make more noise, and viewers are drawn to that.
I mean, sometimes it’s very anxiety-producing watching some of these shows, like when you’re watching O’Reilly having a shouting match with a guest, but you could argue it’s the car wreck appeal; you know, why do cars slow down? You have a lot of gapers. It’s entertaining television.
TERENCE SMITH: What about MSNBC? Where are they in this competition?
GAIL SHISTER: Well, the general manager, Erik Sorenson, hates it when, when media people say, “And in a distant third,” which is how we all refer to MSNBC in our stories because the real horse race is between CNN and Fox News Channel. They are a distant third in the numbers. The interesting thing to me is that they are taking a very different approach, in terms of public relations, in this cable news war. They are sort of staying above the fray. They are not getting into the personal, “mano-mano” stuff that CNN’s Walter Isaacson, and other CNN people and Fox News Channel’s Roger Ailes are really getting into, and they are laying back. They claim that they attract more younger viewers than the other two networks. I am not sure that that’s true. I am not a statistician, and you can make the numbers spin any way that you want. All I know is that they are very low on the radar screen compared to these other two.
TERENCE SMITH: CNN maintains that it wins by a big measure the revenue race, that it generates $100 million more revenue than Fox News. From your perspective, what’s the relevant measure here, viewers or revenue?
GAIL SHISTER: Well, the bottom line in any broadcasting enterprise is money, and it’s business. And television, let’s face it, is a delivery system for advertisers, the same way it is in broadcast television, as in cable television. Personally, my yardstick is viewers, just because I don’t have a vested interest, particularly, in how much money the networks make.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think is the key to winning this race?
GAIL SHISTER: Well, I think that the key is to attract new viewers every day and to keep them, to come up with new ways to interest them every day and to offer something that the other channels are not offering –very hard to do on a 24-hour basis. That is a lot of air time to fill 24/7. And, to me, the bottom line is you have to come up with the personalities, otherwise the news, essentially, is the same, and it’s how you parse it and how you present it that’s going to break you out from the pack.
TERENCE SMITH: Since 9/11, all of the viewership is up. All of the numbers are up for all three channels. Do we assume then that Fox didn’t steal these viewers from CNN, but rather generated a new audience?
GAIL SHISTER: I think Fox has generated a lot of new audience because CNN’s ratings are up dramatically, also. A lot of it is a matter of distribution. For example, take Philadelphia, which is the fourth largest TV market in the country. Fox did not have mass distribution till about 6 months ago, and it drove Roger Ailes crazy.
TERENCE SMITH: How much do you think the news personalities, and the presentation, and the style that you were just describing on Fox explains their success versus their ideology?
GAIL SHISTER: Well, they have disputed it many times that they are a conservative network.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think they are?
GAIL SHISTER: I can’t make that determination because I haven’t seen it one way or the other. I’ve watched mostly the prime-time lineup, which is talk show hosts, and what has interested me most, as far as their appeal, as I said before, is the showbiz entertainment values that they’re presenting. These guys are fun to watch. That’s really the bottom line. If you want to go mano-mano with CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC and see whose covers this, who broke this story, you’d have to do a content analysis as to who broke the most stories. But the momentum is clearly on the side of Fox News Channel.
Clearly, [Fox News has] struck a cord with viewers, whether it be entertainment value, whether the perception among viewers that it is conservative, that conservative viewers feel they don’t have a voice because there is this “liberal bias” in the media that Bernard Goldberg just wrote a book about. It could be all of those factors. But, to me, I just know when I watch O’Reilly, I feel something. I can either be upset, I can laugh, I can be furious and enraged. The fact that he elicits such strong emotions is appealing to me if you look at it as raw television. CNN, hopefully, is trying to cultivate people that have that same kind of emotional resonance, and I think that’s why they’re going after “stars.” They want people to tune in for a particular person.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, soon there will be a match-up between Connie Chung and Bill O’Reilly. What do you expect?
GAIL SHISTER: Oh, boy. Well, O’Reilly has the advantage that he’s become entrenched in the lineup He’s had two best-selling books. He’s everywhere. He’s going to put together a radio deal. He’s becoming a conglomerate in and of himself. I think he has much higher recognition at this point than Connie Chung does. She is a much more low-key person. One of her strengths has always been the “get” — landing big-name interviews; for example, Gary Condit, who everyone in the world wanted. She got him. I think it’s too early to call. I think that O’Reilly will definitely dominate early, but it depends what Connie can come up with because she’s a formidable presence in and of herself. She’s a worthy opponent. I’d like to sell tickets for that match.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned Geraldo Rivera, who also switched channels in the middle of the war on Afghanistan and went off and made much of carrying a gun and so forth. What did that hiring of Geraldo Rivera and sending him off, what did that tell you about Fox?
GAIL SHISTER: I think Rivera is a cowboy, and I think Roger Ailes is a cowboy. I think they’re both sort of renegades. I think they both think of themselves as characters on “Gunsmoke,” and I think the message that Ailes was sending out is this is a renegade tough guy who doesn’t necessarily stay within the box, and he’s got a lot of courage, a lot of bravado, a lot of macho, and we’re going to send him to cover the war, and this is the kind of war correspondent that we need today. Plus, they had worked together before at CNBC, when Roger Ailes was running CNBC. So they knew each other. And this war is custom-made for a guy like Geraldo. I mean, he needs to be where the action is.
TERENCE SMITH: Smart programming move?
GAIL SHISTER: I think so. He’s a lot of fun to watch. You know, love him or hate him, he’s fun to watch. He’s sort of the modern-day Howard Cosell with a gun.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you see an ideological tilt in the other two in CNN or in MSNBC? When you watch it, what do you think?
GAIL SHISTER: I might be the anomaly here, but I really don’t. CNN I’ve always thought of as the meat and potatoes news network. When a big story breaks, a lot of people turn to CNN because they know that they will get the reportage from all over the world, which is a huge advantage that CNN has over everybody. It is a truly international network. And while all of the other networks are closing bureaus internationally, CNN is maintaining, I think, over 30 bureaus around the world, and they can actually get people on the ground to big stories many times faster than the other two networks do.
TERENCE SMITH: But you know they are accused and described as a liberal or left-of-center network and approach to the news. Tom DeLay, the Republican congressman, calls them the Communist News Network, CNN, others describe it as the Clinton News Network. Is there any substance to that?
GAIL SHISTER: Frankly, I’ve really never understood what the charge means when you say a network is conservative or liberal. The only way, to me, to make that charge stick would be to quantify it with numbers, to actually do a content analysis, and there are parameters by which you can measure such things: Story selection, how stories are presented, particularly guests who are chosen for talk show programs. If you are picking traditionally conservative guests for your talk show time after time after time, and you’re not showcasing traditionally liberal guests, you could make the accusation that you have a conservative bias and vice versa. I don’t know any other way to quantify that, and I tend to err on the side of, pardon the expression, conservatism on those kind of judgments. I want to see the academic analysis. I want to see the actual numbers of the qualities I mentioned before I can make that kind of judgment, because that’s a very inflammatory judgment one way or the other.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. In popular perception, Fox is seen as somewhat to the right of center, CNN, by many people, is seen as somewhat to the left of center. Where’s MSNBC?
GAIL SHISTER: A distant third. [Laughter.]
I think MSNBC is trying to position itself as the hipper network. Younger, hipper, edgier, and its viewers do skew on the young side, but as to whether they have more younger viewers than the other two networks, I can’t speak to that.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned the spinning that goes on by the publicists for the different networks. Give me an example of what you’re talking about. Do you get phone calls all the time?
GAIL SHISTER: Every day. I’ve been doing my column for over 19 years, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like this, where almost on a daily basis I get calls from publicists from Fox News Channel and from CNN, particularly when it’s the end of a quarter or the end of a month when the numbers come up, and the networks each have their own spin. And they’re calling me constantly. I’ve developed vertigo just from these phone calls. I’ve never seen such spinning going on. And I have to say the Fox News publicists can be very aggressive, and that I think is a reflection of Roger Ailes, who can be tough, and pugnacious, and loves a good fight, and I have had some knock-down, drag-outs with Fox News publicists. They can be very tough.
TERENCE SMITH: The news networks have also been taking ads, and they’re promoting themselves like crazy. One ad seemed to backfire a bit. That was the ad describing Paula Zahn as “just a little sexy.” What did you think of that?
GAIL SHISTER: I think Paula Zahn is a little sexy, but I think this is a situation where I think she doth protest too much. I mean, Bill O’Reilly said about that whole controversy, if Paula Zahn doesn’t think that part of the reason she was hired is because she’s a babe, then she’s living in Never-Neverland. And despite my strong feminist upbringing, I would have to agree with that. If you notice, there aren’t too many unattractive women on television. I don’t think that you have any female equivalents of a Charles Kuralt on television, and there’s a reason for that, because you can say all you want about there not being a double standard on television or television news, but clearly there is. It was a huge embarrassment to the network that it got on the air, but, clearly, Paula Zahn is an attractive woman, who is also a good journalist. And they’re picking up that the problem, as I see it, is they picked the wrong word. You can promote people with a lot different vocabulary than the “sexy” word. I think it was that “S” word that got them in trouble, and Aaron Brown said, “Any time you call somebody sexy, you’re going to get slapped across the face, and we got slapped across the face,” and I agree with him on that.
TERENCE SMITH: Walter Isaacson says that was a simple mistake. Do you buy it?
GAIL SHISTER: Do I buy it? I think that when, arguably, your marquis talent has a new promo going on the air, and you are in a fight for your life with another network, I find it very hard to believe that people at the top of the flow chart are not going to look at that promo and have the right of first refusal on that promo. Now Walter Isaacson is a first-rate journalist, and if he says he did not see the promo, I believe him. But as far as other people at the network who claim to have not seen the promo, I don’t know how that’s possible. And if it did happen, they need to revamp their protocol, which Isaacson then told me they have done since then.
TERENCE SMITH: The other great fuss of late about somebody’s appearance has been Greta Van Susteren. What does that say to you?
GAIL SHISTER: It says to me that Greta’s going a little bit Hollywood, despite her protestations. I think that she’s feeling the pressure of being a female on television, which is the double standard I was talking about before. I think it’s kind of ironic in a way because she is the most un-Hollywoodlike news person that you can imagine. She told me that she still doesn’t know how to comb her hair, and she represents everything that I think journalists would like to feel about themselves, which is we’re above that. We don’t care about our appearance, even if we happen to be on television.
I think it’s interesting how much press and how much media attention it got. It was on the cover, I believe, of one of the New York newspapers, and the before-and-after pictures have been everywhere. It hasn’t helped that the change has been so dramatic. I think, when you look at her, it really is a tremendous change in her appearance, and I think she just decided to do what everybody else does and get in the game. She’s only 47, for God’s sake. And I think if the change were not so dramatic, it wouldn’t have caused as much of a dust-up. In her favor, I think it’s really classy that she addressed this on her first show because she, she just said here’s what I did, here’s why I did it, let’s move on, which, in my view, is precisely the right way to play it.
TERENCE SMITH: The other big makeover, of course, has been Headline News. Have you looked at that? What are you thinking?
GAIL SHISTER: When I watch Headline News, I feel like I need Dramamine. It’s TV news’ equivalent of a pinball machine. Now I know they do all kinds of viewership studies and focus groups. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on research, but I just cannot believe that the human eye was trained to understand that many elements going on at once in one space.
When I watch it, I don’t know where to look. You’ve got the ticker going underneath, which all of the cable news networks have, which I can’t stand. You’ve got the little screen with the actual person talking. You’ve got some ridiculous factoid going off in the corner, and you have a weather map. I mean, what else can you offer somebody, the latest pap smear results? I mean, how much can a person watch?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, what does it say to you? That they go to that approach, which has been described variously as sort of the Internet on television or an appeal to younger viewers?
GAIL SHISTER: What it says to me is, absolutely, they’re going after younger viewers. The word “multitasking” has been thrown around a lot, and the fact is that younger viewers have a smaller attention span. They want to be entertained. They can do many things at once. They’re going for younger [people] who can absorb all of these disparate forms of information at one time and do not feel overwhelmed.
TERENCE SMITH: Fox has said it’s a point of pride to them that their anchors, Brit Hume and others, wear the American flag on their lapel. Other news organizations have said they don’t want to see that. What’s your view?
GAIL SHISTER: I think it’s a slippery slope when you start wearing your patriotic or religious or any type of views in a public display. It can create the perception that if one anchor is wearing a flag and another anchor is not, that the anchor who is not wearing a flag is less patriotic or if none of the news people are wearing flags, does that mean they’re not as patriotic? I think those kinds of views are personal views and should not be displayed by, by journalists.
TERENCE SMITH: Immediately after 9/11, the cable news channels covered the events of September 11th, the war that followed. It was real news, not manufactured news, all the time. How long did that last, in your view, and what’s the mix today, in your analysis of it, between what could be described as real news, breaking news, substantive news, and what could be described as manufactured news like another Gary Condit story?
GAIL SHISTER: Very hard to find the right balance there. You could make the argument that viewers have reached a 9/11 fatigue with war news. When there isn’t a breaking news story, is it wise to keep stories about Afghanistan on the front burner 24/7, when it’s been shown that many viewers want to go back to traditional comfort food? That’s another phrase that’s been thrown around. They want to see shows that they know and love already that have nothing to do with the war. So the cable networks have started to go back to some of their previous programming. For example, on CNN, Judy Woodruff’s Inside Politics had been off the air for 4 months following 9/11. It went back on the air last week.
I think that you’re going to see more and more of that with the absence of breaking news. I think as soon as there’s another big story, I think you’ll see all of the networks going back to 24/7 on the story. But I think it started to go down the month after anthrax.
TERENCE SMITH: So look ahead for me, if you will. How do you see this competition going? What do–what should we be looking for, what should we be afraid of?
GAIL SHISTER: Where I see it going is I think the bar is just going to be raised higher and higher in terms of entertainment values. You can say all you want about news and reportage, which is important, but people want to see stars. They want to see a personality that they trust and can identify with, and that has a little pizzazz give the news. I think you’re going to see more and more of that in CNN and Fox News Channel, no matter how much they protest that the news is the star.
TERENCE SMITH: Does that make the older, more sober, perhaps, network news, broadcast network news anchors, the Jennings, the Brokaws, the Rathers, less relevant in this new world?
GAIL SHISTER: Actually, I think it makes them more relevant because you see less of that kind of focus on entertainment values in the broadcast network evening news than you see in CNN and MSNBC or Fox News Channel. I think that the three network anchors provided a tremendous service during 9/11 and the aftermath. I think they all did yeomen’s jobs under incredibly difficult situations. People tend to forget that all three network anchors were on the air nonstop for four days. People forget the kind of grueling physical exertion that that took. I think what they represented was sort of a cultural touchstone to viewers during a time of tremendous crisis, and viewers felt comfortable — like the world might be falling apart, but we know that Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings are guiding the ship, and they’re going to explain it to us.
There was really no one on the cable news networks who has that kind of gravitas, that can make that kind of claim, that has the kind of longevity or track record that these three men happen to have. And I think what it showed is that, in times of crisis, yes, the numbers go up on the cable news networks, and you might have a Bill O’Reilly averaging 600,000 viewers, but you also have 11 million viewers watching a Tom Brokaw, and it’s all comparative. So the cable networks are spinning about how much their numbers are up, and how many viewers they’re drawing, but the bottom line is that just one of the broadcast evening news network shows attracts millions more viewers than all of the cable network news shows combined, at a certain hour.