Is Health Care Talk Toxic for Cable TV?

Since Obama's health care press conference notched the lowest ratings of his presidency, the word is growing that talking about health care is sure-fire way to kill your ratings. Health care, after all, is really complicated, and reforming it is even more complicated. What's more, cable's preferred method of discussing policy is to bring in two sides and have them "debate" for two minutes, which is a bad way to cover anything simple and a tortured way to explain anything complicated.

Michael Calderone of Politico spoke to a couple studio and radio people and comes away with the distinct sense that everybody considers health care reform very importantly, very complicated, and very tricky to pull off.

But certainly for some networks, this is a bed of their own making. It is, I think, no coincidence that we're seeing such mainstream coverage of the "birther" movement at a time when health care reform is dominating Washington. For those blissfully initiated in this cause: The birther movement still holds that Obama is not an American citizen, but in fact an illegal alien. That's crazy talk for sure, but it's also easy talk for somebody like Lou Dobbs to cover, especially when the alternative is weighing the pros and cons of lifting the tax deduction on employer-provided health care. So that's what we get: Health care reform in Washington, and the birthers on Lou.

As Calderone points out, the impending debate on cap-and-trade, the Democrats' plan to limit carbon emissions, is likely to provoke the same issues for cable TV: A complicated policy with many moving parts that isn't easily explicable with the two-talking heads model. Republicans are only going to present so many colorful conspiracies in the next few months. Eventually cable is going to have to figure out how to cover serious policy issues in a way that both educates viewers and holds their attention. That is their job, after all.