April 4, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith - Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy

Cable Finds a Mega-Story (Particularly Fox News Channel)

On her February 16 CNN show, Paula Zahn called the Smith case “America’s newest guilty pleasure” and accused the public of being less than candid about its level of interest.

Brandishing a CNN online poll showing that 71% of the respondents said they were not interested in the Smith situation, Zahn responded: “Don’t bother denying it. We’ve seen the ratings, we’ve watched the magazines fly off the rack. We know millions of you are out there.”

Cable’s news certainly seemed to operate under that assumption, both in the newsier day parts and the more opinion-driven prime-time shows. From Smith’s death to her interment, the cable news programs monitored in this study spent about 775 minutes, or more than one-fifth (22%) of its total coverage, on the subject.

No other news event came close to capturing as much of cable’s attention. The second biggest story in that sector was the presidential campaign at 11%, followed by the political debate over Iraq at 10%.

But within the cable universe studied, one channel—Fox News—was much more focused on the Smith drama.

Just as Zahn called the Smith story a “guilty pleasure,” Fox News Channel host John Gibson said on his radio show that the Smith contretemps “may not fit the high-minded views of a lot of news professionals, people who think that their news program is just another part of Foreign Affairs Quarterly. That only a certain kind of news is worthy of their discussing. Those people are snobs.” By his standards, then, Fox News is anything but snobby.

The Fox News Channel spent about 400 minutes or 32% of its airtime, on this case. This was 50% higher than MSNBC which devoted 21% of its airtime to the story and more than double CNN’s coverage of 14%.

How did this coverage compare with cable’s coverage of the other ongoing news events? We looked at two in particular: the race for the White House and the Iraq conflict (this included strategy debate, bloodshed inside Iraq and war-related issues at home such as substandard conditions and care at the Walter Reed Army Hospital).

All three of the cable news networks used more of their airtime to cover Smith’s demise than the race for the White House. The gap was greatest at Fox News, where the ratio of Smith to Campaign 2008 was 4 to 1.

Cable News
Percent of Newshole Devoted to Top 5 Stories, by Channel
Feb 8 – March 2, 2007
Story CNN
Fox News

MSNBC

Anna Nicole Smith 14% 32% 21%
Campaign 2008 11 8 16
Iraq Policy Debate 7 5 20
Events in Iraq 8 3 1
Iran 4 3 6
Source: PEJ News Coverage Index

When it came to coverage of Iraq, Fox again stood out. It devoted just 5% to policy debate, 3% to fighting on the ground and 2% to homefront issues. Taken together, then, all of the Iraq coverage in these weeks amounted to just a third of the Smith airtime. Both CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, spent more time on their total war coverage (17% and 26% respectively) than on the deceased Playmate.

Why such fascination—at least in some outlets—with a woman who, as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann put it, is “principally famous merely for being famous?” Some of those nearly 800 minutes on cable were given over to the task of to trying to figure that out—or rationalize it.

A guest on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show, “Access Hollywood” correspondent Tony Potts, suggested Smith’s similarities with another ill-fated blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, might be driving the interest.

On his Fox show, Bill O’Reilly asked colleague Geraldo Rivera—a former daytime talk host and one of the godfathers of the tabloid media culture—to explain what made Smith worthy of such attention. Rivera thought hard before finally concluding that such celebrities “may be living train wrecks. But they are endearing in some strange, and maybe indefinable” way.