Media Matters researcher Bobby Lewis speaks to SiriusXM's Signal Boost about OAN's relationship with AT&T

MMFA's Bobby Lewis talks to SiriusXM's Signal Boost about OAN's relationship with AT&T

Audio file

Citation From the November 10, 2021, edition of SiriusXM's Signal Boost

JESS MCINTOSH (CO-HOST): I want to ask you about the AT&T connection, because maybe, maybe that'll help refocus me. So AT&T is the foundational investment in OAN. AT&T is the reason why OAN exists. I recently started spending time in upstate New York, where like, we're the rural broadband people. like that will affect me. And the only television that I can get is dish TV. So — which is AT&T. So I realized up there that like, if I'm in the city and I'm hearing about OANI have to go to the internet to find it, right? It doesn't appear like a normal news channel on my television. I've got to find it on the internet. But when I'm upstate with DirecTV, OAN is right there with the news networks on the television. like I can find it in the TV guide.

If Donald Trump says, OAN, I can look at the TV guide, find the channel, it's right in between CNBC and, you know, CNN or whatever. And I watch it just like it was normal news and the viewer doesn't — the viewer doesn't realize that what they've done is like, go through, you know, go down this very strange rabbit hole that might be more apparent if you have to go to the internet to find it. So like, why do you think AT&T is involved in credentialing a network like OAN like what? What is the motivation there?

BOBBY LEWIS (MEDIA MATTERS RESEARCHER): You know, if I had to say, I think the motivation for AT&T is just like pure capitalism, you know, barring any other like reporting into the mindset of the circa 2013 AT&T board of directors. You know, Reuters reported a couple of weeks ago that the OAN founder Robert Herring said in a deposition that he got the idea for the channel when some AT&T executives told him that they were looking for a conservative news channel to go up against Fox. So that has me thinking that AT&T is just in this for like, the money and the markets. You know, it's not a type of channel that they had before, and now they have one.

MCINTOSH: They have taken a financial hit, though, right? Like their stock is down since the report came out showing their...

LEWIS: Yeah, I guess it's just not down enough.

ZERLINA MAXWELL (CO-HOST): Yeah, I mean, that's the thing, it's like at what point — so I guess like, maybe the solution in that, since we can't dismantle capitalism as we sit here this morning, I suppose our strategy could shift to making it less profitable to be like this and make it so uncomfortable, make the friction so much — like you're not making a lot of money. Everybody hates you. People are like, yelling at you at the grocery store. Maybe not that, but you know, you can't — you just feel uncomfortable with the status quo until you change it. I guess that's the way that we do it within the capitalist system.

But that's a question for a different day. A question I have today, though, is how, I mean, how many people really watch this? Like, you know what I mean? Because I think one of the things that people are always surprised to learn, there are more people watching Real Housewives. OK? So anecdotally, you know, given the percentage of the American population, like there's a very small percentage that are actually watching Fox News on a Monday night. It's winning in the ratings. But compared to The Voice or The Masked Singer or Dancing With the Stars, most of America is watching that. So what is the size and scale of OAN, both in terms of like the audience size and like the impact it's having?

LEWIS: Mm-hmm. Well, it's actually pretty difficult to get an accurate grasp of OAN's audience because unlike most television channels, they don't participate in Nielsen ratings. They claim that the fees are too high and they don't want to pay them. They use a different metric. I think it's Comscore Set-Top Box ratings or something, and they claim that they are the fourth most-watched cable news channel behind the big three, but ahead of like CNBC and Fox Business. That's what they claim. I think what's more interesting is OAN's impact because it's become a common place for state-level and local-level conservative lawmakers to get a TV platform and basically vent about whatever grievance they're mad about on any given day. And I think it's been really interesting to see, particularly like Arizona state senators or Pennsylvania representatives or whatever, basically go on OAN and treat it like national-level Republicans do Fox News. Like it's basically the same dynamic just on a smaller scale. And I figure if they're attracting lawmakers' attention, then for spreading their nonsense, they must be doing something right.

MCINTOSH: It almost feels like — like when you said that AT&T was looking for a conservative network to compete with Fox and then they built OAN. It almost feels like the dynamic that plays out in a Republican primary where you're looking for a conservative alternative to the guy who's in office. But instead of choosing somebody reasonable or rational to point out how irrational the guy in office is, you go even farther to the right, and that's the thing that works. It kind of feels like the same dynamic is playing out in conservative media, too.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

MCINTOSH: And now OAN is going to be where like the Marjorie Taylor Greenes go because like Fox won't even use that.

LEWIS: Yeah, yeah, she's on OAN sometimes.

MCINTOSH: But I am using her as a shorthand for all of these state senators, and I'm like, I don't know the names of the Arizona state senators that are going on OAN, but I'm going to guess that they're more of the Marjorie Taylor Greene mold than they are the Mitt Romney mold.

LEWIS: Oh yeah, they're all in there talking about how we need to audit Arizona and decertify nationally and all this nonsense. Yeah, you got it right.

MCINTOSH: So this is also like spreading the Big Lie. Like it's everything is — everything is lies? It's just lies all the way down? It's just like you go from the Big Lie to the school board lies. To the — OK. Yeah. Cool. Great. And once you're trapped in this, there's no way out. You're not getting any opposing viewpoints.

LEWIS: Not really, no. I mean, if you do hear it, it'll be — if you do hear it, it'll be like a line about, “Critics say” in a three-minute news package. Or it'll be one of the opinion hosts like dunking on some Democrat. So you don't really hear any opposing viewpoints.

MAXWELL: Right. So it's not a news channel.

LEWIS: No, not really. It's like a news-themed channel.

MAXWELL: Interest — news-themed. News-branded. It's branded as news.

MCINTOSH: It's conservative news entertainment, I guess?

LEWIS: Yeah, there you go.

MCINTOSH: OK. I like news-themed.