NEW YORK — The federal government shutdown damaged the reputations of Washington politicians but proved good business for the cable television news networks — and taught some reporters new benefits of virtually instant communications.
CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC saw their viewership increase during the 16-day partial shutdown, peaking at more than five million Wednesday evening when Congress passed a compromise bill to put the government back online.
“It was a drama,” said CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash, who logged many hours of airtime along with Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News and Mike Emanuel of Fox. “Whenever there’s a drama, people are interested.”
MSNBC, which has struggled in this post-election year, saw its average prime-time viewership jump 35 percent to 978,000 this month through Wednesday, compared to the first nine months of the year, the Nielsen company said. Fox, which chose not to make any of its reporters available for this story, was up 9 percent to 2.22 million in the same period (although the network also benefited from a prime-time schedule change this month). CNN improved by 11 percent to 721,000.
The news networks brought their traditional hallmarks of crisis coverage to the political machinations, including “countdown clocks” that marked each second closer to a debt limit deadline. The story meant brutal hours: O’Donnell, who filed for MSNBC, CNBC and NBC News, was at work past 3 a.m. Eastern the first night of the shutdown, then back at 6 a.m. for “Morning Joe.”
There were many strong points to the coverage, particularly when reporters didn’t fall back on cliches like declaring winners and losers for an event that did few people proud, said Jane Hall, a journalism professor at American University.
“It certainly gave voice to the American people disgusted over this and there were a number of good stories about the impact of the shutdown on government workers,” Hall said.