Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Economics

Economics

In spite of the continuing questions about viewership, and the pressure on resources, and the effect of that on quality, news continues to contribute significantly to each network’s bottom line.

This year, we found three trends in network news economics:


Evening News Economics

As noted in last year’s report, there are little or no public data on the operating profitability of network news divisions. In the past, journalists covering the Big Three networks got estimates from network officials on background. Even then, the numbers were difficult to verify. Now fewer reporters cover the business aspects of network news divisions, which are small operations inside huge conglomerates.

To adjust, we have tried to develop a continuing picture of the fortune of network news by looking at advertising revenue. While the numbers are not without their own problems (networks now bundle ads between programs, making it difficult to allocate) they do give us some independent information to reflect on.

Interestingly, there appeared to be no bounce to network news revenues at all from the presidential campaign. TNSMI/CMAG, a company that tracks political spending, reports that not one dollar of political advertising in 2004 went to buy network time. The election was indeed narrowly fought, truly contested in only a dozen swing states, not nationally. The political parties have stepped back from their national civic duties even more radically than the network news divisions have.

Nightly News Revenues

The numbers, from TNS Media Intelligence, have been calculated based on a calendar year, from January to December.

In 2003, the advertising revenue for all of the Big Three evening news programs began to show an up-tick. Partial data through August of 2004, however, suggest that growth may not have continued.

From 1999 to 2002, NBC suffered a 13% drop in its ad revenue, according to TNS data. ABC suffered a 9% drop. CBS, the No. 3 network, enjoyed an 8% gain.

In 2003, the last year for which we have complete data, that changed. According to the TNS data, NBC’s evening newscast remained No. 1, taking in $161.9 million (in calendar year 2003) an increase of 3.6% over the year before. That is still less than in 2000.

ABC evening-news ad revenue was $148.8 million, up from $144.3 million in 2002, its first increase since 2000, but again still lower than the 2000 total.

CBS Evening News in 2003 showed its third straight annual advertising revenue increase, according to the TNS data. It took in $155.8 million, up from $149.4 million the year before. CBS’s ad revenue was higher than it had been in all the TNS data we have, going back to 1999.

Through August 2004, however, the numbers appeared to be overall. According to TNS, NBC led with $103 million (which would project to $154 million at the end of the year). ABC was second at $101.9 million (on track for $153 million). CBS was third with $97.2 million (on track for $145 million).

Evening News Revenue, by Network
1999 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: TNS Media Intelligence/CMR unpublished data, www.tnsmi-cmr.com

The revenue numbers, however, need to be viewed carefully, industry insiders say.

First, they could drop even lower by the end of 2004, as they did in 2003.

In addition, the fact that the networks, particularly NBC and ABC, are selling ads in packages makes calculating revenue figures problematic. An NBC ad buy could include, for instance, the network nightly news, CNBC and MSNBC, plus online deals with MSNBC.com. That gives networks leeway in terms of how they assign the revenues to different programs. It is possible that the revenue data are comparing apples and oranges.

Indeed, some network news professionals say the bundling of ad sales has become an important factor in the race for No. 1 in evening news. If you are on top, you have more leverage to bundle ad sales, to tell advertisers that if they want preferred spots on the evening news, they may be forced to buy time in other programs.

What’s more, internal network sales data provided by network sources on a confidential basis to the Project last year suggested the numbers are close but not entirely accurate.

In any case, the TNS numbers, alone, suggest 2004 proved a somewhat difficult year, after the optimism of the year before.


Morning News Economics

As audience grows on morning shows, so does their role in the finances of network news.

The latest TNS data suggest ad revenue at all three morning shows is on the rise. NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America dominate and with a much smaller gap than they have in ratings.

CBS’s Early Show is a distant third here, but growing.

In 2003, the latest full-year data available, the Today Show took in $470 million for its three-hour program (versus two-hour programs at the other networks), up some 11% over the year before. ABC’s Good Morning America took in $465.6 million, up 11%. CBS’s Early Show took in $218.3 million, up 5%.

Partial data through August 2004 show those numbers continuing to build, unlike the ones for evening news. The Today Show had taken in $367.7 million, on pace for $551.6 million. Good Morning America had taken in $349.8 million, on pace for $524.7 million. And the Early Show had taken in $161.7 million, on pace for $242.6 million. Those would all be healthy increases from the year before.

The networks have been ever more creative about packing the shows with revenue opportunities, using sponsored segments, more ads in each half hour, and more.

To get a sense of perspective on how the morning shows have been turned into economic engines, between 1999 and 2003, the Today Show has improved advertising revenue, according to TNS, by 45%.

ABC’s Good Morning America, despite a slight downturn in 2001, has seen ad revenues between 1999 and 2003 grow by more than 50%. For the same period, CBS, on a smaller base, has seen its ad revenue grow since 1999 by some 64%.

The length of the morning shows is the most obvious factor in their ability to generate higher revenue than their evening news counterparts, with roughly half the viewership. Data from Andrew Tyndall reveal that in 2004, the morning shows averaged about four times as much time for commercials and network promos on weekdays. Since they are four times the length (not counting the third hour of Today) that means the ratio of editorial to advertising is similar.1

The tone of the morning programs is also important. Morning shows have a greater flexibility in where and when advertising spots can take place. Because they are a blend of news and entertainment, a sponsor can, in essence, purchase a portion of the actual program – think of Smucker’s sponsorship of The Today Show’s long-running birthday greetings or, more recently, The CBS Early Show’s partnership with Williams-Sonoma on a series of Thanksgiving spots, and the program’s being featured in the houseware company’s catalog and on its Web site. Those are obviously not the kinds of maneuvers we’re likely to see on the evening newscast anytime soon. We provided a fuller explanation of this revenue flexibility in last year’s report (see the Morning Show Economics section of the 2004 Annual Report).

Morning News Revenue, by Network
1999 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: TNS Media Intelligence/CMR unpublished data, www.tnsmi-cmr.com


Sunday Show Economics

The Sunday news programs are their own, unique genre in network news. At their root, the programs are intercom shows for official Washington. They do not position themselves as the viewer’s friendly neighbor, as the weekday morning shows. Nor as a source of information about a full range of events, in the evening news manner. A holdover from an age when broadcasters put on public-affairs programs to please regulators, Face the Nation (CBS), Meet the Press (NBC) and This Week (ABC) are network news’s “insider” time.

As they have evolved, they have solidified their appeal to the political or news junkie, to make a base of viewers feel that they are plugged into the inside on a weekly basis. They have become a source of marketing for the networks to get their names in the Monday morning paper, by breaking some incremental news that officials want to deliver.

And the programs, particularly Meet the Press, have become profitable, thanks in part to the perceived elite status of their audience. Advertisers include accounting and investment firms, business-oriented products and higher-end automobiles – a departure from the home-care, grocery and hygiene products that make up much advertising on weekday morning and evening news shows.2


News Magazine Economics

Despite ad bundling, economics for network news magazines look unpromising heading into 2005. Once all the rage and dominating prime time, the news magazines have been surpassed today by reality shows.

NBC’s ubiquitous Dateline franchise has continued to experience declines in ad revenue, according to the TNS data. For the latest year available, 2003, its ad revenue dropped 3.5%, from $245.6 million in 2002 to $237 million. CBS’s 60 Minutes dropped from $97.6 million in 2002 to $89.3 million in 2003. Meanwhile, 60 Minutes II3 increased its revenue from $63.5 million in 2002, according to TNS, to $70 million in 2003. Taking into account that Dateline was often on three times a week in 2003 (and judging from transcripts published on Lexis Nexis, occasionally four times) that means 60 Minutes remained the most profitable of the news magazine on a per-hour basis. Still, according to insiders, the 60 Minutes figures are a result of CBS’s decision to change the ad rates for the two broadcasts, boosting one at the expense of the other – another subtlety.

ABC’s 20/20, another of the landmark news magazine shows, showed an ad revenue drop of about 5%, from $93.6 million to $88.7 million. The program’s spin-off, 20/20 Downtown, has been cancelled since last year’s State of the News Media report.4

One magazine show to keep track of, the TNS advertising data suggest, is CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery, which premiered as 48 Hours, became 48 Hours Investigates and finally, in 2004, got its present name. While low on the totem pole, it continues to grow. The program’s ad revenue quadrupled from $13.7 million in 2002 to $55.7 million in 2003. That may be a reflection of the program’s being given more hours over the calendar year on the CBS schedule. A review of transcripts available on Lexis Nexis showed it airing twice weekly for much of 2003.

Nightline, which had previously been holding steady, has begun to slip, albeit slightly. According to TNS, the program’s revenue dropped from $78 million in 2002 to $69.5 million, or 11%, in 2003.

Network news executives the Project consulted confidentially to review these figures said one reason the NBC and ABC magazine shows are flagging is that both networks’ prime-time schedules are suffering (see The Race Among the Networks in Audience). Revenues for the 10 to 11 p.m. time slot are down about 20% at ABC, according to rough estimates. Nightline’s revenues have fallen too, not as badly, but clearly down. That may say more about the state of network entertainment programming than the state of network news.

One point to consider is that as a network’s entertainment lineup becomes more successful, it raises the bar for how many viewers a news magazine must draw to maintain its place in the program lineup.

News Magazine Revenue, Select Programs
1999 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: TNS Media Intelligence/CMR unpublished data, www.tnsmi-cmr.com
60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, 48 Hours, Dateline and 20/20 regularly air once a week. Nightline appears five nights a week, which would contribute to its higher advertising revenue totals.

Footnotes

1. The average minutes of commercials (including network promotions) for calendar year 2004: ABC World News Tonight-9.5, CBS Evening News-8.9, NBC Nightly News-8.8, ABC’s Good Morning America-35.4, CBS’s Early Show-35.3, NBC’s Today-34.3.

2. In the context of the recent problems with Vioxx, pharmaceutical advertising is a coming major issue in network news. Four separate points that should be made. First, if shoddy approval procedures for prescription drugs release a torrent of liability lawsuits, this entire revenue stream could be seriously damaged. Second, one reason why the evening newscasts have provided a friendly editorial environment for these advertisers is that the networks have altered their news agenda over the years to include more health-medicine-lifestyle coverage. Third, that mix of editorial and advertising combine to send a message to younger viewers that the evening news is not for them. If the networks wanted to attract a younger audience, a wise move would be to refuse advertising that is targeted at geriatrics. Fourth, if Vioxx et al. do become embroiled in a tobacco-style controversy over false advertising about drug safety, network journalists will have to do all they can to make sure the erosion of their advertisers’ credibility doesn’t rub off on the credibility of their editorial content.

3. Before the Bush/National Guard memo brouhaha, there was no differentiation in name between the Sunday edition and weekday editions. That one was subsequently renamed 60 Minutes Wednesday.

4. The available numbers for Prime Time Live raised more questions in our minds than they answered. The totals appeared to be low, in part due to changes in the way the program was broken out. In the absence of a firm figure, we chose this year to leave the program out of the totals.

5. 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, 48 Hours, Dateline and 20/20 regularly air once a week. Nightline appears five nights a week, which would contribute to its higher advertising revenue totals.