This week started off with a bang. In the span of just a few minutes, two of the biggest names in cable news were unexpectedly fired. Though they’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both CNN’s Don Lemon and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson found themselves on the same side of unemployment – and some industry watchers are calling it the biggest day in cable news history.
Except, does any of this really matter anymore?
Carlson is the more prominent name of the two ousted anchors, and he’s consistently been the biggest ratings draw in this industry for the past few years. On a good night, 3.5 million people would tune in to watch his daily histrionic spectacle. For his final show last Friday, he netted over 2.6 million viewers, just about double the runner-up at the same hour, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
3.5 million people is certainly a lot of people. Most businesses would be ecstatic to have 3.5 million recurring customers. But it really isn’t that much.
The owner of the most popular TikTok account, Khaby Lame, has 156 million followers. Christiano Ronaldo has 578 million followers on Instagram. Baby Shark has been watched close to 13 billion times on YouTube. Carlson’s nightly viewership was a lot closer to the impression count on a mildly viral social media post than anything else.
In today’s television landscape, 3.5 million viewers is considered a juggernaut. Twenty years ago, it would make you about the 50th most popular show on television, right around 8 Simple Rules or My Wife and Kids. And that’s in a country with 40 million fewer people than today.
Millennials, and to a greater extent Gen Z, don’t watch television in the same way that Americans did for the past half-century. When I asked my students what they do when they have an hour to kill, precisely zero of them said watch linear TV. I personally haven’t had my own cable subscription ever. This decaying viewership helps explain why when you turn on MTV, the former arbiter of youth culture, you’ll just see 21 hours of Ridiculousness a day. (Check out YouTuber captainmidnight’s explainer of what happened there.)
Today, these platforms don’t actually move the needle all that much – but they still serve a vital gate-keeping, validating role in our media ecosystem. Having the YouTube clip on your channel, the screenshot on your profile, and the logo on your website is arguably more important than what happens live on air. It says that you’ve made it, that the “experts” have declared you trustworthy and established and worthy.
As generative AI makes our media diet more and more confusing with each rapidly-accelerating update, there’s a good argument to be made that this validating function is more important than ever – even if the channels themselves are arguably less important than ever.