Commentary: If Trump Wins, The Biggest Reason Will Be TV

In this Feb. 18 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with Anderson Cooper, right, during a commercial break at a CNN town hall. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
In this Feb. 18 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with Anderson Cooper, right, during a commercial break at a CNN town hall. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Michael Rosenblum, a pioneer of citizen video news-gathering, predicts that Donald Trump will win the presidency, despite the polls.

He says it’s clear from what has happened to Americans’ TV viewing habits.

The changes are visible in the shows that we now watch and those we no longer follow or have been dropped. He says the Nielsen TV ratings service disregards the first three months of their subjects’ viewing habits. When people know they are being monitored, they tailor their preferences to support “good shows.” They start out indicating they watch public television, but over time they get tired of pretending and go back to the Kardashians.

Rosenblum sees a parallel with political surveys. Many -- though certainly not all -- respondents in political surveys try to give the “right” answer or fool the interviewer. Polls of voters’ presidential preferences can’t detect the true extent of Trump’s support since he is considered disreputable or controversial or ignorant or simply racist. Dare I say, Trump supporters are trying to give the “politically correct” answer? So they say they’re for Hillary Clinton or are undecided. But in the privacy of the voting booth, they feel no need to self-censor and will vote for Trump.

Our television viewing preferences betray us; they are like the paintings on ancient cave walls: They reveal what we see and care about. The dumbing down of our society is evident from our TV viewing habits. Rather than watching Judy Woodruff on PBS, we watch "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." CBS, ABC and NBC evening new programs have falling ratings, but we make time to watch TMZ or Megyn Kelly (Fox News) or Anderson Cooper (CNN) -- who won his 8 p.m. time slot on Friday, when he tried to interview Trump. Outspoken Trump critic Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) got a huge ratings boost in the first quarter of 2016.

We limit our overall awareness of news thanks to the rise of cable news channels that tailor their news and analyses to the ideologies of viewers they want to attract or keep. Fox, of course, caters to conservatives and Republicans; MSNBC goes for liberals and Democrats; CNN leans left of center but has conservative pundits including Trump’s one-time manager, Corey Lewandowski.

The cable channels have to win eyeballs for hours and hours, every day. They want programming that’s “good TV,” lively, provocative, unpredictable, daring. In short, if there isn’t a mass shooting, they want Trump. He’s good TV. Clinton is not. Some would say she’s deliberately uncontroversial to create a contrast with the erratic Trump. She also confounds the news media by refusing to hold press conferences, the free-for-alls where reporters try to top one another with a gotcha question or face an hour of live cable TV answering questions about her emails.

Of the Trump phenomenon, one major TV network’s top man admitted as much. “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” declared Les Moonves, its executive chairman and CEO. He confirmed what media critics have long suspected about Trump. “Donald's place in this election is a good thing,” he proclaimed. “Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Nevertheless, as everyone knows, TV is no longer the dominant source of news for Americans.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 4,654 people in January and February and found 62 percent got their news from social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. An astounding 44 percent of all adults turn to Facebook for news. Now Facebook is making a big change, giving “pride of place to posts from users’ friends and family, instead of prioritizing content from professional news publishers.” Better to see what your Aunt Sophie thinks about the economy than, say, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has a Nobel Prize in economics.

As Rosenblum, the citizen video advocate who predicts The Donald will win, put it: “Donald Trump is great TV. He knows how to entertain. He understands ratings. Hillary Clinton is crap TV. She may be smarter, better prepared, a better politician. It won't matter. She is terrible entertainment.”

With the debates starting in less than a month, that could be crucial.

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Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



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