The phrase “jumped the shark” refers to the point in the life of a TV show when quality begins to decline. Its origin comes from a 1977 “Happy Days” episode, in which Fonzie, as a test of his bravery, jumps over a shark on water skis — while wearing his trademark leather jacket.
That sitcoms decline in quality and are ultimately cancelled is to be expected. After all, that’s entertainment. But what happens when the declining show is an important part of keeping citizens informed?
CNN has jumped the shark.
When, on March 8, Malaysian Flight 370 vanished into the ocean, CNN chose to become a one-story news network, engaging in six weeks of nonstop coverage of the event, even when there was absolutely nothing to report. With the endless splash of “Breaking News” banners across the screen, a flight-simulator crew on lockdown, and plastic airplane models held by news anchors, the coverage bordered on the absurd. In its final days CNN was no less bullish, going as far as to invoke the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic to eke out a few additional days of coverage.
I decided to take a closer look to determine just how much time CNN allocated to this event, even as it was coming to an end. I compiled an entire day of CNN transcripts from Monday, April 14, 37 days after the flight first went missing. The transcripts, all available on CNN’s website, amounted to 320 single-spaced pages of type. Of the 189,400 words used to report an entire day’s worth of news, CNN dedicated 75,929 of them, or more than 40 percent, to the Malaysian plane.
There were, of course, other major news stories that were breaking that day. The two most covered were the takeover by Ukrainian separatists of government buildings, and a Passover eve shooting rampage by a white supremacist in Kansas that left three people dead outside of two Jewish facilities. Combined, those stories garnered only one third of CNN’s total coverage. If we were talking in terms of sharing a pizza, Flight 370 got more than three slices, while Ukraine and the shootings shared around two-and-a-half. All other programming shared just over two remaining slices.
CNN has staked out a position as being, “the most trusted name in news” — a sort of New York Times for cable. What’s more, the surrounding cable-news ecosystem has cooperated, with Fox News owning the right and MSNBC the left. Thus, CNN’s decision to ignore proportion and surrender to a single event meant that many other serious issues got short shrift or were left out of the mix altogether.
So why do it in the first place? Ratings, of course. The mystery of the lost plane and the misery of the victims’ families made for addictive television. During the first three weeks of coverage, CNN’s Nielsen ratings absolutely soared, with primetime household viewing increasing by 94 percent. Comparatively, Fox increased by only 1 percent, and MSNBC dropped by 5. Most of the extra viewers came from non-news networks such as A&E.
CNN’s decision to go after ratings at the expense of its mission of offering a balanced picture of the world leaves many viewers with nowhere else to go. Americans have been famously discerning about whom they “invite” into their living room night after night; when it comes to TV news, at least, trust must be earned. But my sense is gimmicky coverage won’t bode well for the long run. At this point, I’ll just get my news online, and stick with “Happy Days” reruns on cable.
With that, at least I’ll know what I’m getting.
More coverage: Editorial cartoon: CNN coverage of missing jet | Flight instructor who regularly appeared on CNN fired | Editorial: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the absence of news | Alex Pearlman: 5 things MH370 has taught us about aviation | Bluefin robot joins search for missing Malaysian plane
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.