Sarah Palin may be very unpopular by any traditional polling standard. However, pundits are eager to explain that the important thing isn't how many people like her, but rather the intensity of her followers' enthusiasm for her. Sure, she may poll like Herbert Hoover in 1932, but the thirty-to-forty percent of the country that approves of her includes a hard core of fanatical support. That intensity, we are repeatedly assured, will give her political power, no matter how many people oppose her. Sarah Palin is officially popular, whether the rest of us like it or not.
Palin is popular in the way Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are popular. Not many people watched them, or ever did, but their tiny audiences are loyal and enthusiastic enough to make those shows into profitable franchises. Not profitable enough to keep Star Trek on NBC's prime time, of course, but profitable enough for a cable-TV environment with dozens and dozens of channels. Palin, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a phenomenon in a fragmented media world where broad audience appeal is no longer necessary.
If the current media is fascinated with her, that's because they are themselves the creatures of the new and more fragmented national media, where the goal is not broadcasting but narrowcasting: getting a minuscule slice of the audience pie. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have small audiences. Several of their, ahem, "major stars" draw audiences in the hundreds of thousands; the most successful get a few million viewers. The talk may be about, say, Katie Couric's ratings being low, and Bill O'Reilly's being high, but bad Katie Couric ratings are still easily higher than good O'Reilly ratings. Of course, it's relative. Cable news is only expected to pull in half a million to three-and-a-half million, and network news is still expected to pull in between six and ten million. Of course, the exact demographic slice of viewers CNN or FOX or MSNBC pulls in may be more lucrative for advertisers. Of course, the small cable audience may be growing by double digits and the big network audience is declining from its old eight-figure ratings. It is very natural for media figures, like the media executives to whom they answer, to view popularity in this sophisticated, relative framework. But relative popularity is only relative. Ignoring order-of-magnitude differences in popularity numbers is a mistake. The top news program in America is still 60 Minutes, which rates on a scale that dwarfs MSNBC, CNN, and Fox combined.
The news media, taking its cues from the entertainment media of which it is a component rather from the world it ostensibly covers, has grown to overvalue the same secondary numbers and measures of "intangibles" that determine news products' values to the corporations that own them: momentum, enthusiasm, brand loyalty, growth. And those measures have their importance, but older, less sexy forms of measurement shouldn't be ignored. Obama's poll numbers may have slipped, relatively speaking, but the difference between fifty-something job approval for Obama and around fifty percent disapproval for Palin is, ah, not trivial.
On the other hand, one can make enormous piles of money in the current media environment by getting the attention of only part of one percent of the national audience. Narrowcasting is how big media conglomerates make their profits. Sure, there may not be that many Star Trek fans as a percentage of the population, but by current standards you can have very successful Star Trek films and excellent DVD sales. You can make excellent money with prime-time soap operas for teens on, say, the CW network, because a small slice of faithful female teenaged viewers is enough to sell advertising. Palin evidently sold 700,000 copies of her book last week, which is an enormous and lucrative number in absolute terms but still represents than 0.25% of the population buying her book. (Okay, let's say everyone lends it to three friends who read it diligently. We're up to a whole percent.)
Narrowcasting expalins why the newer media covering politics tend toward hyper-partisanship. It's not that there's a broad appetite for talk-radio ranting. In fact, those ranters turn most of the audience off. The point is that the radio host, cable news head, angry columnist or partisan blogger is only shooting to reach a minority in the first place; getting a small segment of the population to pay faithful attention is all you need. Cable news has precisely the same business model as the Science Fiction Channel: the people who want to watch this are a tiny minority, but they have an enormous appetite for it, and so that tiny slice is profitable.
To a narrowcaster, Palin Mania looks stupendous. The fans are so hard core! She's so fresh! And twenty percent of the country looks enormous when reaching only six-tenths of a percent suffices to print money. But American politics is still first-past-the-post, and that means national politics demands keeping support wide as well as deep. Presidential politics is inevitably broadcast politics: old school, like the MGM Lion, Cary Grant, and NBC Blue.