The cable news audience has peaked
CNN’s rotten ratings have grown only rottener. The Time Warner-owned news network drew fewer prime-time viewers last week than any week since September 1991, the New York Times just reported.
But CNN isn’t the only network riding the down escalator when it comes to ratings. Over the same week, Fox News Channel attracted its fewest viewers in the important 25-to-54-year-old category since July 2008, the Times added. * But CNN isn’t the only cable news network in the doldrums, according to year-by-year data. Various observers have blamed the viewership downturn on the lull in the 2012 campaign, on viewers defecting to the season finales on the entertainment channels and on the lack of breaking news. But I interpret the falloffs as fresh evidence that the audience for cable news has peaked.
The first sign of a peak in cable news appeared in March 2011, when the Pew Research Center released a study that proclaimed, “Though many will remember 2010 as a hard year for CNN, in reality, most cable news channels suffered audience losses.” The able chartists at Pew drew a sad graph of cable news. Combined median viewership for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC during prime time had receded 16 percent, to 3.2 million, that year. Mean viewership had also dropped 13 percent, to 3.3 million, making it the largest year-to-year drop for cable news since Pew started analyzing the numbers in 1997. It also marked the first drop in the median audience since 2006.
The bad news continued through 2011, as cable news viewership remained nearly flat. This was fairly astonishing considering all the breaking news from that year – the Arab Spring, Japan’s tsunami, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Libyan civil war and the European economic crisis – not to mention the bustle of the presidential campaign.
Among those who noticed that cable news was flatlining was the Atlantic Wire’s Uri Friedman, who surveyed analysts for the underlying reasons in a March 2011 post. The consensus view put the onus on the Web: Now when big news breaks, the polled pundits agreed, the curious go to the Web (often via their mobile device) instead of cable news. Outside the Beltway‘s Doug Mataconis speculated that the potential audience for overtly liberal (MSNBC) and overtly conservative (Fox) TV news had maxed out.
Other possible reasons for the cable news slump is that the three channels (plus CNN’s subsidiary channel, HLN), approached maximum carriage on large cable systems years ago. Upwards of 90 percent of U.S. households already subscribe to cable or satellite TV, and most carry the news channels, so there are very few eyeballs out there that would like to tune in to CNN, Fox News and MSNBC but can’t.
Fox attempted to expand the market for cable news in 2008, when it started the Fox Business Network to compete with CNBC, but it has not succeeded. The network continues to occupy the “bottom tier” of cable channels rated by Nielsen, in part because it’s available on only 50 percent of cable-TV households compared with the 85-plus percent of CNN/HLN, Fox News, MSNBC, and direct competitor CNBC. It’s reasonable to surmise that cable systems don’t want to carry Fox Business because so few viewers are dying for more of the same.
Just because cable news may have peaked doesn’t mean the audience is static. Viewers still move around the dial. For instance, in 2011, CNN and MSNBC gained some prime-time viewers at the expense (Excel spreadsheet) of HLN and ratings colossus Fox News. But the increase in viewership by two standard yardsticks is only 1 percent or 2 percent.
There’s so little news in cable news – especially during prime time – that it’s a bit of a misnomer to keep calling it “cable news.” As currently programmed, the networks best resemble political talk radio, in which people chat about the news instead of report it. That political talk radio has already reached its own “saturation point” has occurred to the industry, talk-radio consultant Randall Bloomquist of Bloomquist Media told me.
“The audience for personality-driven political talk radio has flattened and aged in recent years. Still, radio companies have been reluctant to pull their hand from that still-lucrative jar and experiment with new forms of spoken word programming,” said Bloomquist. “Political talk radio has always viewed the performance of cable news as a key indicator. Peak cable might provide another impetus for radio to start taking some chances with non-political formats, especially shows with an appeal to younger men, something that political talk sorely lacks.”
Although cable news growth may have stalled, don’t weep for the networks. Revenues are still growing. Pew reported in its 2012 study that revenues (both advertising and subscription fees charged to cable systems) were rising at all three of the top channels.
But as cable news has peaked, so too has Fox News Channel President Roger Ailes. He’ll continue to call the plays at his channel, but unless he comes up with something startlingly new, he won’t be able to cause any greater public ruckus with his shows. And if Ailes and Fox News have peaked, what of Media Matters for America, David Brock’s advocacy group? Media Matters polices Fox News with such dedication that it’s become the network’s finest publicist, pushing Fox News stories to liberal audiences who would otherwise never be aware of them. Oh, Media Matters will continue to ding Fox News. But if the Fox News audience isn’t growing, Media Matters can’t expect its followers to be more scandalized about Fox News than they already are.
Bill O’Reilly? Peaked. Chris Matthews? Peaked. Anderson Cooper? Peaked. Democratic Party outrage over what Fox News said about the president? Peaked. Maddow, Hannity, O’Donnell, Sharpton? Peaked, peaked, peaked, peaked.
* Correction, May 25: This article originally cited a flawed New York Times article whose analysis of Fox News rating has been corrected.
I peaked in 1992. (Disclosure: Randall Bloomquist is a friend and used to write for me in the old days, when I was an editor and just peaking.) When did you peak? Send your confession to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed has yet to peak. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) listen to CNN moderator John King (R) in a Republican presidential candidates debate in Charleston, South Carolina, January 19, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed