Ratigan: ‘health care is bad for ratings’

I have a piece up now on the effect of the health care debate on TV news.

MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan said Thursday morning that while President Barack Obama has “elevated the conversation” when it comes to health care, there’s a downside for cable executives and his fellow hosts: “Health care is bad for ratings.”

Discussing the previous night’s low-key news conference, Ratigan said that “cable networks’ ratings go off a cliff” during the health care debate, which eventually “forces the conversation out of the TV.”

It’s not as if the public ignored Obama entirely as he took questions in the East Room on Wednesday night. Indeed, 24.5 million viewers tuned in across the broadcast and cable networks. Still, that tally was the smallest prime-time audience of Obama’s presidency, dropping 50 percent from five months ago. And Fox’s decision not to air the presser paid off: The network won the 8 p.m. time slot with an episode of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“It’s bad for ratings,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart told Ratigan, “but not talking about it is bad for the American people.”

Television executives, correspondents and pundits are quick to point out that health care is perhaps the most vital issue facing the country, and it’s their professional obligation to present the facts and arguments to the public. But doing so is similar to taking medicine — important, but not always fun.

While viewers may seize upon numbers that indicate the size and scope of reforming health care — 47 million uninsured Americans or costs in the trillion-dollar range — most eyes glaze over when terms like “public option” or “bundled payments” get tossed around on the air.

“It’s not only not a cable TV-friendly story; it’s not a journalism-friendly story,” said John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC.

Rest is here.

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