Andrew Tyndall monitors network news for a living. He is the publisher of the Tyndall Report, which tracks what the big three (CBS, NBC, ABC) are covering. He’s also a student of the news industry and the maneuvers of the networks as they compete with one another.

Tyndall was one person I next wanted to hear from when I learned that CBS had added to its news staff Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, among other positions he has held. I asked Andrew what he thought of that appointment.

This was my prompt: “Today Mick Mulvaney was announced as a CBS News contributor. Looking at CBS News in comparison to the broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS — including the morning show and Face the Nation, and especially the social media team, it seems CBS is the most likely to treat Trump people and MAGA supporters as legitimate guests who should have a platform. Is this just my perception? Is it true that the CBS audience is older, whiter and more rural than the others? Might that have something to do with it? Or am I just off here?”

Andrew Tyndall replies:

1. The current phase of expansion — not just at CBS News but at almost all national TV news organizations — consists of the development of 24-hour news streaming. This move is especially attractive to CBS, which missed out on the expansion from broadcast to cable. As cable news wanes in an era of cord cutting, CBS can get back on equal footing with NBC at Peacock and CNN at CNN+ with its streaming entry. To do that, CBS appears to be leveraging its affiliate network for local newsgathering. But it also needs to plan for national political talking head programing.

2. More and more nowadays, the day-in-day-out hassle of booking outside interview subjects — persuading them to appear, pre-interviewing them so you can plan around their talking points — is avoided by paying talking heads to be pre-committed to join the day’s panel by signing them up as contributors. CBS seems to be sticking to the Face-the-Nation tradition you mention by envisioning its panels as politically balanced: one D, one R, two middle-of-the-roaders. Hence not only Mulvaney but also McMaster, earlier this month. I am talking about regular panels here. The high publicity interviews when the subject has an incentive to appear (William Barr selling a book, for example) are not fodder for the hours of time that talking heads are required to fill. 

3. With the hiring of Mulvaney and McMaster, CBS appears to be trying to make the distinction between MAGA Trumpers and mainstream Republicans. Perhaps that distinction consists of nothing more than “Republicans who agree to take CBS’ money” vs “Republicans who consider CBS to be the enemy and would consider their reputation soiled by agreeing to appear.” On the other hand, CBS does seem to be treating the circumstances of Trump’s two impeachments differently: Mulvaney was thoroughly implicated in the Ukraine scandal, yet this appears to be no disqualification; yet CBS recently hired Robert Costa and Scott Macfarlane, two leading investigative reporters into January 6th, which would indicate that the likes of Meadows or Navarro would be a bridge too far.

As for the older-whiter-rural image of CBS News, that has certainly always been the case. The affiliate networks for local news have always been far stronger for ABC and NBC in the major metropolitan areas. The abiding area of strength for CBS News has been on Sundays (Jane Pauley as successor to Kuralt and Osgood plus Face The Nation plus 60 Minutes) and the abiding weakness has been weekdays: mornings (vis a vis GMA and Today) and evenings (O’Donnell vis a vis Holt and Muir). However, if we see the hiring of Mulvaney (and McMaster) as being primarily in service of its streaming service, then the older-whiter-rural aspect need not apply, since CBS would not be in the business of converting that particular broadcast audience to streaming.