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Audience

Audience

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2007, three trends stand out when it comes to the audience for cable news.

What is that change? For the second year running, none of the cable channels saw the kind of audience spikes from major news events they had become accustomed to.

Instead, the evidence suggests programming built around a cast of hosts, often but not always the edgiest of cable personalities, contributed in large part to the growth.

Cable Audiences

After losing viewers in 2006, cable news had audience growth again in 2007, during both the day and evening.

And as in previous years, prime time saw more growth than daytime on the three cable news channels – Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.1

Over all, the median audience for cable news in prime time grew by 9%. (This report analyzes median audience first because statisticians have advised us that it offers a truer sense of base audience. See the sidebar on audience measures.) Using the industry-preferred metric — the mean or simple average — the prime-time audience grew 7%. By either measure, nearly 2.7 million viewers watched cable news on an average night during 2007, compared with 2.5 million in 2006.

Cable News Prime Time Audience
1998-2007, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience respectively


During daytime the median cable news audience rose just 1% in 2007. About 1.57 million viewers on average tuned in to the three channels during the year, up from the 1.55 million in 2006 . The mean audience grew 3% – 1.58 million viewers on average in 2007, compared with the 1.54 million in 2006.

Cable News Daytime Audience
1998-2007, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience respectively

The Big Stories of 2007

A year ago, when the cable news audience dropped, analysts wondered whether the medium might be suffering from structural erosion in its base appeal. Through its history, cable has benefited as the first destination for breaking news events, and the medium tended to see huge spikes in its audience during those moments. But that was not the case in 2006. That raised the question of whether the Internet, with its e-mail alerts and mobility, had matured to the point that it has become a serious rival as a source for news as it was occurring. We suggested one year was not enough to offer a clear indication, but that the question deserved observation.2

What happened with cable audiences during major breaking news events in 2007?

The year was characterized by a series of major stories, both sensational and tragic – from the death of the celebrity-model Anna Nicole Smith in February to the mass killings at a Virginia college in April – as well as continuous momentum provided by the coverage of the 2008 presidential candidates and the developments in the war in Iraq. Cable news took an active role in the political debates, which turned out to be big audience draws. (For a fuller discussion on how cable news covered politics, and gained from it, see News Investment.) But, for the second year that we have tracked them, numbers suggest the spikes in viewership during breaking news events were less dramatic and less consistent than in past years.

The year began with a media flurry over the death of Smith in February, and cable news led all media sectors in continuous coverage, from daytime to prime time.3 Looking at the average figure for the month, however, this frenzy did not translate into an audience spike. During the day, the audience was up just 3% from the month before, and in prime time there was a loss of 3%.

In April, Cho Seung Hui , a disturbed college student, shot to death 32 students and faculty members (and himself) on Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, Va. Of all media, cable news again invested the most time, offering intensive coverage for two weeks.4 Here, viewers did respond. Daytime viewership rose 9% over the previous month and prime time rose 6%.

In June and August, audiences spiked to smaller degrees when twin car bombs were found in London and, in the U.S., a bridge collapsed in Minnesota, workers died in a Utah mine and the presidential election campaign got under way. (The period saw three televised presidential debates and the Iowa straw poll). But when wildfires spread across California in October and took up half the cable news time during one week, that, too, failed to produce an audience spike over the previous month.

So, while on average the number of viewers in 2007 increased over the previous year, there were no significant audience spikes during the year’s breaking news events, at least not the kind that cable news used to see. The biggest audience draw on cable news over the past decade was the start of the Iraq war in 2003, followed by Hurricane Katrina coverage in September 2005.

It is possible that 2007 was simply a modest year for breaking news. It is also possible, as we began tracking in 2006, that cable news now must compete with the Internet as a source for immediate breaking news, and that these more modest spikes will become the norm. The campaign year of 2008 may not be an ideal test of that. It could be influenced how much coverage the networks offer and by higher interest in the 2008 race than in 2004. But this long-term question deserves more scrutiny.

Cable News Prime Time Audience during Big Events
1998-2007, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Average viewers in the respective month on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN combined

If breaking news is losing appeal, however, what explains the slight rise in cable audiences? The shows growing fastest in cable news tend to be personality driven. The fastest-growing shows in prime time are Nancy Grace (up 23%) on Headline News, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (up 15%) and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News (up 11%), still by far the No. 1-rated program on cable news. These shows are also the most heavily promoted on respective channels.

Some analysts believe that cable channels, as they reach saturation point in terms of new audiences, are creating these confrontational shows or personalities to draw viewers in – in effect, more entertainment-like programming.

If we look at the prime-time lineup from 7 to 10 p.m. on cable news, each network differs in its mix of talk and news. MSNBC’s first three programs are all personality-driven – Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams, all of whom mix top stories with opinion and talk. They then close out the prime-time with a non-news program, MSNBC documentaries.

Fox News bookends its two opinion shows, the O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes, with Shepard Smith’s Fox Report on one end, a traditional newscast with a lead anchor, and the more crime-news-oriented On the Record with Greta Van Susteran on the other. It also airs another newscast, Special Report with Brit Hume, before Smith.

CNN alternates talk and news. It begins prime time with a news-and-commentary combination, Lou Dobbs Tonight, then moves to news (Out in the Open), followed by the talk show Larry King Live, whose one-on-interview format with newsmakers and celebrities continues to attract the largest audiences on CNN, as it has historically, and then goes back to news with Anderson Cooper 360. On Headline News, CNN seems to counter-program by only airing opinion programming with Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace. (See more about the distinction between the cable shows in Cable TV Content Analysis.)

Cable News Shows at Prime Time
November 2007

Fox News CNN MSNBC CNN Headline News
7 p.m. Fox Report (1,369,000) Lou Dobbs Tonight (872,000) Hardball w/ Matthews (420,000) Glenn Beck (367,000)
8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor (2,300,000) Out in the Open (631,000) Countdown w/ Olbermann (793,000) Nancy Grace (489,000)
9 p.m. Hannity & Colmes (1,459,000) Larry King Live (931,000) Live w/ Abrams (420,000) Glenn Beck replay
10 p.m. On the Record (1,205,000) Anderson Cooper 360 (589,000) MSNBC Documentaries (395,000) Nancy Grace replay

Source: Nielsen Media Research on Media Bistro.com
Note: Numbers in parentheses are November 2007 average viewership, persons 2+

Fewer spikes could also be a result of more people going online to get breaking news, perhaps making the Internet the real beneficiary of audience spikes. (See more about the growth of news online in our Online chapter.)

2007: Channel by Channel

Which news channels were growing? For much of the last decade, only Fox News grew steadily, much of that coming at the expense of CNN. MSNBC struggled to get traction of any kind.

In 2006, that changed. Fox News began to decline, and the perennial third-place channel, MSNBC, began to grow. What happened in 2007?

The growth at MSNBC continued steadily. Fox News, still by far the dominant cable channel in audience, grew over the previous year, but only slightly. CNN showed some strength of its own for a second year, and its sibling, Headline News, also saw some notable growth. Indeed, in 2007 if we were to add Headline News’s median prime-time viewers to CNN’s audience, the total (about 1 million) gives some competition to, but still does not top, Fox News’s median audience of 1.4 million.5

Cable News Prime Time Audience in 2007
Channel by Channel, Median Audience
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license


MSNBC

While it continues to lag behind its competition, MSNBC had reason to cheer as, by any measure, it increased its audience substantially in 2007.

The channel’s median daytime audience grew 10% to 270,000 viewers, up from 247,000 a year earlier. (Using mean, audience grew 14% – from 244,000 the year before to 278,000 viewers in 2007.)

MSNBC’s numbers during prime time were even more remarkable. The median audience grew 36%, to nearly 490,000 viewers a night in 2007, up from a median of 361,000 during in 2006. Using mean, there was similar double-digit growth, of 32%.

MSNBC also managed to score the steadiest growth – in the double-digits at prime time in every month in 2007 except December. Even at daytime, only the last three months of the year broke this trend.

MSNBC at Prime Time
Median Audience, 2007 vs. 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
MSNBC at Daytime
Median Audience, 2007 vs. 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

MSNBC was keen to attribute that steady growth to a number of factors, from its focus on political news to the rising popularity of its loquacious evening talk-show host, Keith Olbermann.

In Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the host picks five top stories, each accompanied by his strong opinion. Olbermann’s continuing criticism of the Bush administration has coincided with a ratings increase; the show had the top ratings on the channel throughout the year.

MSNBC’s other big-name anchors also brought in substantial viewers (Also see News Investment.) Chris Matthews and Dan Abrams, who returned as anchor in late 2007, led in audience numbers on the channel, as did Tucker Carlson in daytime (his show was canceled in March 2008) and Joe Scarborough in early morning.

MSNBC’s success, however, must be kept in context – when compared to the year before, none of these time slots saw growth. The time slot now filled by Abrams (formerly by Scarborough) fell 16% from November 2006 to November 2007. Carlson dropped about 10% and Matthews dipped 8.5%.

Top Shows on MSNBC
November 2006 vs. November 2007

Show Time November 2006 November 2007
Countdown with Keith Olbermann
8 p.m.
689,000
793,000
Verdict with Dan Abrams
(replaced Scarborough Country)
9 p.m.
500,000
(Scarborough)
420,000
Hardball with Chris Matthews
7 p.m.
459,000
420,000
MSNBC Investigates
10 p.m.
329,000
395,000
Tucker*
6 p.m.
296,000
269,000
Morning Joe
(replaced Imus in the Morning)
6 a.m.
371,000
(Imus)
229,000
MSNBC Live
9 a.m.
255,000
209,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research on Media Bistro.com
Note: *Tucker was replaced by Race for the White House in March, 2008; all numbers are average viewership, persons 2+; shows ranked by November 2007 viewership

And compared to competition, its total audience figures still lag behind both CNN and Fox News. Its prime-time audience, together, is about one-third of Fox News’ and about a quarter million viewers behind CNN’s.6 And even its top-rated show (Olbermann) trails its competition at 8 p.m., the O’Reilly Factor, by more than 150,000 viewers.


The Fox News Channel

The Fox News channel remained comfortably ahead in terms of viewers, just as it has the past decade. But there are more signals that perhaps the network has reached a ceiling.

In 2007, the cable news leader continued to have the largest viewership among the three channels, but showed little or no growth over the previous year. At prime time, the median audience grew just 2% to 1.41 million viewers, up from 1.37 million the year before.

The picture looked similar when measured as simple mean – a 4% growth, from an average of 1.38 million viewers to 1.43 million in 2007.

During daytime, the median audience grew 3% to 814,000 on average. The mean audience fell by 1% to 817,000, down from 824,000 the year before.

Even with growth flat, however, Fox News’ median prime-time audience of 1.41 million is nearly triple MSNBC’s (489,000) and nearly double CNN’s (736,000).

Seen another way, that meant that more than half (53%) of all viewers watching prime-time cable news in 2007 were tuned into the Fox News Channel. And according to trade magazines, the third quarter of 2007 marked the 23rd consecutive quarter that Fox News had topped CNN and MSNBC.7

That dominance carried over to daytime, when 51% of all viewers tuned to Fox News, again about double CNN and more than triple MSNBC. Fox News averaged 817,000 viewers, compared with 485,000 for CNN and 278,000 for MSNBC.

It also was home to eight of the top 10 shows, according to Nielsen rankings. The prime-time talk show conducted by Bill O’Reilly, O’Reilly Factor, remained the most-watched show on cable news, averaging about 2 million viewers a night, for the sixth year in a row.


CNN

At CNN, the channel stopped the losses and even began to grow a little. But the news channel is still lodged firmly in second place, with MSNBC gaining ground.

In prime time, CNN attracted a median audience of 736,000 in 2007, an increase of 4% over the previous year’s 710,000. That was somewhat better than its growth during the day, with a 2% growth in median audience – 482,000 compared with 474,000 in 2006.

Using mean, the growth was similar – just 2% at prime time, as average viewership went up to 753,000, compared with 739,000 in 2006. And during the day, viewers increased by 3% — 485,000 viewers vs. 472,000 the year before.

As in previous years, individual shows continued to pull in big ratings but, apart from the veteran host Larry King, none of the CNN personalities or shows broke into the top-10 list of cable news shows.

The other top performers for the channel were Lou Dobbs – like Olbermann and O’Reilly, a mix of strident opinion and news – and newsman Anderson Cooper. These prime time shows contributed in part to the growth CNN has seen overall – in 2007, its prime-time audience growth beat out daytime growth.

In CNN’s decade-long struggle against Fox News, one measurement by which it has consistently surpassed its rival is in “Cume,” short for cumulative audience. This calculation refers to the number of individual (or “unique”) viewers who watch a channel over a fixed period of time.8 Ratings, by contrast, measures how many people are watching at any given moment. If more people watch CNN over time, though fewer at any given moment, CNN can claim that it has a wider reach. And indeed, historically CNN has used this metric to sell itself to advertisers despite Fox’s advantage in ratings.

In the third quarter of 2007, CNN released figures showing it maintained that lead.

Cable News – Cumulative Audience
Number of Unique Viewers (in thousands)

Channel Q3 2007 December 2006 December 2005
CNN
66,485
71,797
59,949
Fox News
55,570
61,591
53,083
MSNBC
53,578
53,785
42,201
CNN Headline News
53,790
57,185
46,020

Source: Nielsen Media Research on Media Bistro.com, retrieved on October 3, 2007
Note:Select months, depending on data available; Channels ranked by Q3 2007 Viewership


CNN Headline News

CNN’s sister channel, Headline News, has in the past two years broken away from its typical 24-hour headlines-only format to include distinct morning and evening news programming, and the changes seem to have worked in its favor.

In 2007, CNN Headline News had an 18% increase in prime-time median audience (353,000 viewers) and 8% (235,000) during the day. That rate of growth is better than both CNN and Fox News, and resembles that of MSNBC.

CNN Headline News
Median Audience

Year Prime Time Audience Daytime Audience
2007
353,000
235,000
2006
302,000
218,000
2005
307,000
244,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research used under license

If we look at individual shows on the channel, CNN Headline News’ top shows – essentially opinion or entertainment news—continued to attract a substantial number of viewers. Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace, prominent in any analysis of CNN Headline News in 2006 as it ramped up efforts to carve out a niche for itself, continued to be two of the channel’s three highest-rated shows.

The Nancy Grace Show was Headline News’ top performer, with an average of 489,000 viewers in November 2007. When compared to the competition, though, the show lagged behind. Grace occupied the personality-dominated 8 p.m. slot, where her audience figures were no match for Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor and came in at half of those for MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Headline News’ entertainment news show, Showbiz Tonight, was its second-most-watched show, with 381,000 viewers.

The Glenn Beck show, which airs an hour earlier, at 7 p.m., had 367,000 viewers in November 2007. It competes with its sister channel CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews and the only hard-news show in that slot, Shepard Smith’s Studio B on Fox News.

Top Shows on CNN Headline News
November 2006 vs. November 2007, by Viewership

Show Time November 2006 November 2007
Nancy Grace
8 p.m.
397,000
489,000
Showbiz Tonight
11 p.m.
250,000
381,000
Glenn Beck
8 p.m.
345,000
367,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research on Media Bistro.com
Note: Numbers are average viewership, persons 2+; Shows ranked by November 2007 Viewership

Who Is Watching

Survey data have shown that there are some clear partisan differences among those tuning into the three cable news channels.

According to data from the Pew Research Center for the People and Press, CNN and MSNBC had more Democrats tuning in, while Fox News’ audience leaned Republican.

Looking at party affiliation, CNN and MSNBC had nearly identical viewer demographics. Almost half of both of their audience members were Democrats – 48% for MSNBC and 45% for CNN. Independents made up about a quarter (26%) of viewers, while Republicans took up the smallest share – 22% for CNN, and only 19% for MSNBC.

On Fox News, the trend was somewhat reversed. The largest share of its audience – 38% — were Republicans, followed by Democrats (31%) and independents (22%).9

Footnotes

1. We define daytime as 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and prime time as 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The project began collecting yearly data on CNN Headline News in 2007 (see more in respective section.)

2. Hurricane Katrina represented something of a milestone in where people turn for breaking news coverage. For the first time, the Internet rivaled cable TV as the place people turned for to learn about the latest developments, browse through archived footage, and even contribute to the story themselves – witnessing a huge growth in citizen journalism (see Online Audience in our 2006 report.) In a September 2005 survey during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 21% reported going to the Internet for news about Katrina. By comparison, 31% tuned into CNN, while 22% went to Fox News and only 9% to MSNBC. Nearly a year later, in August 2006, the numbers were even more telling. People going for news on the Internet, at 21%, were almost at par with CNN (24%) and Fox News (20%) and much ahead of MSNBC (6%). In 2007, the Virginia Tech shooting mirrored this trend – indeed, its media coverage provided something of a case study of how a news event could be parceled out in a multi-platform world (see more in Digital). Survey results from Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organizations,” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2007.

3. According to PEJ’s news coverage index, cable news devoted 30% of its newshole on the Anna Nicole Smith case at the height of the event, and over all it was the third-biggest story on cable in the first quarter of 2007. See more online at: http://www.journalism.org/node/5716

4. PEJ News Coverage Index, “Campus Rampage is 2007’s biggest story by far,” April 15-20, 2007, Online at: http://www.journalism.org/node/5197

5. CNN’s median prime time audience in 2007 was 736,000 and CNN Headline News’ was 353,000. They total 1089,000. Fox News channel’s median primetime audience was 1405,000 in 2007.

6. In 2007, Nielsen Media Research data indicates that median prime time audience of MSNBC was 489,000. CNN had 736,000 viewers and Fox News, 1,405,000.

7. Steve Donahue, “Fox News Dominates News Ratings,” MultiChannel News, October 2, 2007

8. Viewers are counted as part of a TV channel’s Cume measurement if they tune in for six minutes or longer (they are typically calculated over the course of a month). Like average audience, Cume is measured by Nielsen Media Research.

9. All numbers from the Pew Research Center’s biennial media consumption survey conducted from April 27 to May 22, 2006. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006