The military coup in Egypt pushed vigilante George Zimmerman – finally – off the U.S. cable news networks CNN, Fox and MSNBC on Wednesday.
Though the Zimmerman trial, in which a Florida security guard is charged with murdering a young black man, dominated daytime coverage for the past 10 days, the Egyptian uprising against President Mohammed Morsi worked its way onto the cable news networks as the situation escalated to a military coup.
All three cable news networks ran coverage of thousands of Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square on Wednesday night, the cradle of their 2011 revolution, as the news spread that the military had taken over from the democratically-elected but unpopular Morsi.
The news finally shoved the Zimmerman trial off the air, which had been the steady obsession of the networks, with constant updates aired on the CNN ticker.
International news stories have historically not done well on American television. So the networks that are dependent on viewers to survive rarely focus on them.
In 2012, CNN led the pack in international news coverage, devoting 23 percent of its broadcast to foreign stories. Fox and MSNBC had just 15 and 7 percent, respectively. CNN was also the lowest-rated channel of the three, hitting a 21-year low around this time in 2012.
Now CNN, rebooted under new President Jeff Zucker, has been showing the Zimmerman trial all day, with Egypt news largely relegated to a small inset box in the bottom right corner of the screen.
But guess what? CNN just beat MSNBC in the most recent quarter ratings, with a 49 percent gain in daytime over its 2012 numbers. Looks like it's doing something right.
And the cable networks have all stepped up their Egypt coverage as the situation escalates. Right now, for instance, it's the Zimmerman trial in the bottom right of CNN's screen ("back to Zimmeran trial in a moment") while the Egyptian military makes a statement on the current crisis.
A recent panel at the Aspen Ideas festival tackled the same issue, with Al Jazeera America's executive director of international operations Ehab Al Shihabi saying that "40 to 50 million" Americans wanted serious, in-depth news on their TV sets. The rest of the panel disagreed; MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell said that people can turn to PBS NewsHour for "serious" stories every night, and they don't. NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan agreed, saying his show only gets about a million viewers every night.
Also read: Can Jeff Zucker Rebuild CNN From 6 A.M. Up?
Journalism professor and Twitter "mindcaster" Jay Rosen wrote Wednesday that CNN's coverage of the Zimmerman trial over the protests in Egypt shows what new CNN president Jeff Zucker's "priorities" are – "lurid and flashpoint trials" over "epochal world events." He's wrong – Zucker's priorities are to CNN's business interests.
The answer to the much-asked question "What's wrong with TV news?" is the people who watch it.