Cable, Network News See Audience Declines In 2010: PEJ

The audience for network evening newscasts continued their 30-year decline in 2010, and cable news, while it has become the fourth most popular platform for news, shows signs of having peaked.

That is according to a copy of the annual Project for Excellence In Journalism "State of the News Media Report," which was released Monday morning.

The audience for most network news programs continued to slide, mostly by single digits, but revenues at all three news divisions grew by about 6% thanks to the improved television advertising market. "While the audience for network news continues to shrink, and those revenue gains are smaller than in some other media," the study said, "the power of TV ads remains formidable."

Evening network newscasts saw a 3.4% loss in average viewership from the year before, as 21.6 million people watched one of the three evening newscasts each night in 2010. That was an accelerated decline from the past two years, a loss of 752,000 viewers in 2010 vs. 565,00 in 2009 and 273,000 in 2008.

But to put the numbers in perspective, the study points out that four times as many people watch the three network evening newscasts than watch the three cable news channels in primetime, and that twice as many people watch the lowest-rated broadcast evening newscast than the highest-rated cable news program.

Broken down by network, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams lost the least in average viewership in 2010, down 1.4% to 8.5 million. ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer fell 3.9% to 7.43 million and CBS Evening News With Katie Couricdeclined 5.5% to 5.65 million.

On the digital side, NBC leads the networks as well, as its Website has more traffic than the other two networks' combined. But ABC and CBS appear to be moving more aggressively into mobile and social media, says the study. ABC News leads the three networks in Facebook fans with 143,000, followed by CBS (107,000) and NBC trails far behind with only 928. Though the study does note that some individual news programs have more fans than the news divisions (NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams has 39,000 Facebook fans). CBS News has the most Twitter followers at 1.62 million, while ABC has 1.18 million, and NBC again trails with only 76,000. Its CNBC and MSNBC feeds have more followers, but still but don't match those of CBS and ABC.

It is a similar story on the cable news side, which saw primetime viewership declines in 2010, but still managed to improve finances. Revenues are projected to rise at all three cable news networks, Fox by 17%, CNN/HLN by 5% and by MSNBC 7%, according to market research firm SNL Kagan. All three networks are also projected to expand their news investment budgets in 2010.

But despite the strong financial picture, the audience for cable news may be leveling off. "The medium, which has become the fourth most popular platform for news out of about a dozen in the United States, according to Pew Research Center surveys, showed signs in 2010 of having peaked," says the study.

Median primetime viewership at the three channels dropped 16% to 3.2 million, according to Nielsen Media Research data, and all channels saw primetime audience declines. CNN fared the worst, plunging 37% to 564,000 viewers, while Fox fell 11% to 1.9 million, MSNBC declined 5% to 747,000 and HLN lost 17% to 434,000.

CNN does lead one benchmark though, cumulative audience, or the number of viewers who tune into the channel for at least one hour a month. CNN has a cumulative audience of 42 million just over Fox's 41 million and MSNBC's 37 million, according to Nielsen Media Research data from the study.

And while cord-cutting fears failed to materialize in 2010, the study sees the move into new digital platforms as more urgent for cable news, as Web traffic fell last year at all three channels' sites, according to one measuring firm.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.