This might explain why CNN unexpectedly bumped its special feature on John Felix Bender’s death in Costa Rica

March 19, 2014
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Many of us in Costa Rica who weren’t tuned in to The Ticas’ final match in the U-17 Women’s World Cup, and who could find a signal for CNN in the U.S., were anxiously awaiting the premiere of “Love & Death in Paradise,” which promised to get to the bottom of the bizarre death of U.S. expat John Felix Bender in 2010.

We had all read Ned Zeman’s long-form piece of nearly the same name (“Love and Madness in the Jungle”), published in Outdoor Magazine, and we wanted another angle. Let’s see what CNN does with this, we said.

The feature was supposed to air Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on the U.S. East Coast (8 p.m. in Costa Rica), and sources close to the filming promised it would be revealing.

But as the hour approached, CNN informed us we’d instead be getting more coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. That included “profound questions,” as CNN described them, such as, “Could the plane have landed on water?” And tweets from scared viewers like this one:

But why would CNN bump a story at the last minute without even a hint of an explanation? One obvious reason is that Costa Rica isn’t in CNN’s U.S. ratings market. But another reason comes from looking at how the business side of news is driving programming at CNN and other major cable networks in the United States.

As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes:

There has been other news on CNN lately — a little Ukraine here, a bit of Obama there — but for the most part, there’s one story.

Since last week, several days after a Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared March 8, the network has packed hour after hour with news and talk about the missing flight. CNN has gone all in on the story — to the exclusion of almost everything else — while its cable-news competitors have dipped in more sporadically.

The disparity in hours of coverage might be driven as much by each network’s strategic identity as by the news itself. The Malaysia mystery plays most to CNN’s brand as the go-to source for big international stories. Indeed, the jet story might illustrate why the cable news networks are actually niche networks — each with its own topical turf, perceived expertise and audience preferences.

I think I’m getting the picture. CNN consistently trails Fox News, and this is a good way to close the gap. Back to Farhi:

Still, CNN competes best when major news breaks, particularly an international crisis or a natural disaster — or a mega-mystery such as the disappearance of a Boeing 777 in the skies over southern Asia.

Since the plane vanished, CNN’s overall audience has grown 86 percent among viewers ages 25 to 54 — the segment most coveted by advertisers — and by 71 percent overall, according to Nielsen.

Its ratings have far exceeded MSNBC’s but remain well behind those of Fox News, which was the top-rated network on cable during prime time in the week after the plane went missing. Even so, thanks to strong interest in the story, CNN managed a rare feat: It beat Fox during several hours Saturday and Sunday.

Now, there’s no doubt this is a legitimate story. We’re talking about 239 souls on board and a massive commercial aircraft that disappeared without a trace in the high-tech 21st century. As CNN’s Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, quoted by Farhi, says:

“This happens to be among the most compelling mysteries we’ve ever seen. At the same time, it touches so many areas that are important to American viewers — national security, potential terrorism, an American-made jetliner, a U.S. Navy search. There’s a technology story there and a dramatic human story involving 239 families. The public wants to know if their planes are safe.”

But how much coverage is too much coverage? Again, Farhi:

The relative success of the network’s approach to this story might leave CNN with a challenge in deciding when to stop covering it. Feist said the coverage won’t leave the air or the front page until the mystery surrounding the plane is solved. But the matter is “a day-by-day decision,” he said.

“We look at the news environment with a fresh set of eyes every day,” he said. “If there’s news in other parts of the world, we’ll cover those stories, too.”

Just maybe not on the scheduled day and time.

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