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Pew Study: Has Cable News Hit the Ceiling?

Cable news is more stable than most news sectors, but
audience figures at three major legacy brands, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are leveling
off and revenues and profits were either growing at  a slower rate (Fox
and MSNBC) or flat (CNN), raising questions about whether there is
"ceiling" to the 24-hour news network niche.

That is according to the Pew Research Center's Project for
Excellence in Journalism News Media 2013 report released on Monday. The report
is essentially an analysis of figures and trends gleaned from news reports and
surveys, theirs and others.

The 2012 presidential election didn't provide much of a
viewership bump either. The report cites Nielsen figures that showed a combined
3% increase in primetime viewership for those three nets in 2012 versus a 35%
jump in 2008. The only network to grow its primetime audience was MSNBC,
passing CNN in daytime and full-day viewership, though that has yet to translate
into similar revenue gains. That could change, the report points out, as
contracts come up for renewal.

Fox remains the ratings leader, and "for now" is
"holding strong," said Pew -- its ratings, viewership and cash flow
are still more than CNN and MSNBC combined.

Fox did little tinkering with its programming strategy or
lineup, not surprising given the above figures. It was not blazing any online
trails either, according to the report. "While other channels made forays
into mobile technology investment (CNN with Zite) and social technology
(NBCUniversal with Zeebox), Fox did little to move beyond the main
screen." But, again, that was no big surprise given that that screen
"consistently delivers valuable appointment viewers to advertisers."

The report points to CNN "ratings woes" and
continued signs of weakness. It cites the network's strength online with a
"strong audience" and suite of digital products, but a strength it
"has yet to translate that into a cash cow," certainly an observation
that extends beyond CNN.

By an SNL Kagan "profitability" metric cited by
the report, CNN cash flow was estimated to be down 5% versus an estimated 11%
growth for Fox and 4% for MSNBC.

CNN's "under new management" sign could be an
opportunity to reverse the trends, suggest the report's authors, but it will be
a tough row to hoe. "[T]hough the hiring of former NBCUniversal chief Jeff
Zucker to head CNN Worldwide signals an opportunity for CNN to reset its
trajectory, it will still be a big challenge to turn CNN's brand of straight
news and global reporting back into a cable success story."

The study suggests aging demos could hurt those legacy brands.
"It would be one thing if cable news simply maintained itself as a niche
medium with capped but stable ratings," says the report. "But
demographic factors could further weaken viewership in the years to come.
Regular viewers of the evening talk shows, which tend to draw the highest
ratings across cable news, are older, according to Pew Research data."

The study identified a mix of "success, setback and
consolidation" for other cable news channels. In the setback category -- actually
they called it "struggling," was Bloomberg TV, which the report says
has never gained the traction of competitors CNBC and Fox Business and went
through major layoffs.

Bloomberg would likely argue that one of its
problems is channel positioning on the nation's largest cable operator,
Comcast. It complained to the FCC that Comcast was not including it in
"news neighborhoods" per an NBCU deal condition. Comcast rejects the
claim that the condition obligates it to do so.