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Audience

Audience

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The basic direction of news consumption is clear enough.

Audiences are moving toward information on demand, to media platforms and outlets that can tell them what they want to know when they want to know it.

This is more nuanced than the audience simply fragmenting with new technology. Consumers are changing their expectations and their behavior.

For legacy media, however, this is not translating into an ever-accelerating exodus of audience but rather, a steady, fairly modest yet still inexorable drip, drip, drip.

The best response for these traditional media seems to vary. For network news, maintaining the product in its traditional form is proving the better strategy for the moment. Attempts at winning new viewers have been ineffective.

For newspapers, in contrast, changing the product, given more limited resources and the shift to online delivery, is clearly the wave most outlets are pursuing.

But the goal of winning new audiences to old platforms — using the Web to lure people to television programs or print — generally is not working. Younger audiences, it turns out, are interested in news. But they want it from new platforms that can deliver it in new ways and on the consumers’ new terms.

All this is also happening, as we began to discuss last year, against a backdrop of a revolution over measurement. Advertisers increasingly are demanding more precision about how many people are seeing and interacting with their ads. Traditional media, meanwhile, are pushing for ways to combine legacy and digital audiences, although it remains uncertain whether advertisers care to have such aggregate numbers.

All these pressures were again at play in what happened in 2007 to newspapers. Circulation fell at about the same rate as in the two previous years — down 2.5 % daily and 3.5 % Sunday, for the six months ending September 30 compared with same period a year earlier, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Since 2001, newspapers have dropped 8.4% in daily circulation and 11.4% in Sunday circulation.

Readership, the new audience measure for newspapers preferred by many in the industry, more than doubles the total audience figure (2.3 times higher for daily and 2.5 for Sunday). The number of people who report reading the print paper at least once during a given week is higher still.

If you add in the unduplicated audience of a newspaper’s Web site (people who do not also read the print edition), which typically is growing at a healthy rate, you get a picture of the “Total Audience” for newspaper organizations growing, not declining.

The story in network television news was one of more straightforward decline. For the nightly newscasts, the total number of viewers fell again in 2007 — by 4.9%, or 1.2 million viewers — to 23.1 million viewers each evening on average. For the past 25 years, the programs have lost roughly one million viewers a year.

In the morning, which had been more stable, the audience fell for the third year in a row, dropping 2% year to year, and offering the suggestion that we were seeing a deepening trend. The total audience for the morning news shows is now at its lowest point since 1999.

Online, meanwhile, the universe of people appears to have basically stabilized. What has changed is that they are going online more often, and spending more time when they get there. And that includes going online for news more regularly.

Seven in ten Americans have used the Internet for news — a number that has not changed in five years. But in 2007, 37% said that they had gone online for news the day before, up from 30% two years earlier, and a new high.

Industry executives have high hopes for online video, although exactly how much viewing has grown is uncertain. The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s first major report on online video shows that, as of March 2007, 57% of online adults had used the Internet to watch or download video, and 19% did so on a typical day. For those with broadband connections at home or work, 74% report having watched video online.

One reason people are tracking these numbers so intently is hope that video may become an important revenue stream for Web sites. The projections, for now, are steady growth, but something less than an explosion. One report, from e-Marketer, projects that online video ads will increase fivefold by 2011, reaching $4.3 billion. But even with such strong growth, $4.3 billion will account for just 10% of total Internet ad spending.

Cable news, which is highly sensitive to events, saw audiences grow in 2007 after sharp declines the year before. Much of this growth occurred in prime time, or the evening programming, which is now dominated by talk show hosts who spent much of the year focused on the 2008 presidential campaign . The median prime-time audience was up 9% (the mean was up 7%). Daytime rose more modestly, at 1%, for all three channels.

In the race among the three major channels, the patterns are also changing. Fox, which lost audience in 2006, saw modest growth in prime time (2%), while CNN, which had been losing audience fairly steadily for a decade, has reversed that slide and grew 4%. MSNBC, still a distant third, is the boomer, with prime-time audience up 36%.

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, were at the core of the growth.

In local television news, by our analysis, ratings continued to fall in 2007, often by sizable numbers. Our calculations show early evening news down 6% November to November and late night news down 7% in the same period. Even morning news, once a growth area, is declining, though to a lesser extent.

In response, we saw evidence that stations were shifting newscasts to different time slots to keep up with changing lifestyles, pushing them later in the early evening, right before prime time, and ever earlier in the morning.

And to keep up with the growing pressure of recording programs and skipping commercials, the way television news is measured changed. Nielsen Media Research introduced Commercial Ratings, a new system that measures viewers watching commercials (not programs).

In what was once called radio, the audience is rising — and fragmenting. The growing question is which, if any, of the new audio platforms — satellite radio, Internet radio, HD radio, podcasts, MP3/iPod listening or cell phone radio — will emerge as more significant, or whether the universe of “audio” will become more and more fragmented.

Traditional broadcast radio maintained an impressive following in 2007, even among fans of new audio. According to the radio ratings company Arbitron, traditional radio commanded a weekly audience of 93.3% of the population 12 and older as of the spring of 2007, though that number has fallen slightly (1.6 percentage points) since the spring of 2000. This translates into nearly 233 million people over age 12 who tuned into the AM/FM dial at least once during an average week.

While most people hear news of some kind on any station, 16.1% listened to dedicated news, talk or information stations in 2006, among the most popular formats. This made it one of the most popular formats, though the various music formats combined is much greater.

(Of this overall figure, 1.4% listened to straight news on the “All News” format, 2.1% to “Talk/Personality” radio stations, 2.2% to an “All Sports” format, and the largest number – 10.4% – tuned into a mixed format of “News/Talk/Information.”) On average, people spent a little over nine hours a week listening to news/talk/information.

HD radio is not increasing audience as expected. The audience for HD radio in 2007 was estimated to be 320,000 (compared with 13 million satellite radio listeners), up from 100,000 in 2005. While that is sizable growth, the total audience is still minute. One reason is that, although the growth of stations digitally broadcast skyrocketed in 2005, it has since leveled off and even declined in 2007.

Satellite radio audience continued to grow, but that growth may not be enough to sustain either company on its own if the merger of the two companies is not approved. Sirius Satellite Radio ended 2007 with 8.3 million subscribers, up 38% in 2006. XM Radio added 1.4 million subscribers, bringing its total to more than 9 million, an 18% increase .1

The audience for Internet radio has appeared to level off. About 12% of people 12 and over (or 29 million people) reported gone online “last week” to listen to the radio, according to Arbitron data. That lack of growth is interpreted by many as a concern. The sector had been growing.

Podcasting also appeals to a small audience over all (only 13% of those over the age of 12 have ever downloaded a podcast), but to a much larger contingency — 52% — of those under the age of 35.

And after years of research and field testing, the Portable People Meter — a new passive electronic device for measuring radio audiences — was finally implemented in a few markets. But early results from Philadelphia, Houston and New York have exposed some problems, namely sharp rating declines for younger listening audiences and minority groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, compared with results from the paper diaries. In response to complaints, Arbitron announced in November 2007 that it would delay the installation of the Portable People Meter in the nine markets it was expecting to launch in late 2007 and 2008.

In magazines, the news continues to be rough for the general interest news category, and much better for certain niche and news magazines. Time reduced the circulation it guaranteed advertisers by 600,000 to 3.4 million early in the year, and in November 2007 Newsweek followed with a cut of 500,000 (to 2.6 million). U.S. News is holding steady, hovering around its rate base mark of 2 million.

But niche publications were growing. Both The Week, a weekly news digest, and The Economist, the British-based newsweekly, enjoyed a strong 2007. The Week’s circulation was 480,084, up 36,000. The Economist’s U.S. circulation continued to grow, increasing 81,000 to 720,882.

In ethnic media, the picture is becoming more complex, too, as more ethnic groups spread across America. In Spanish-language media, for instance, the maturity of the community often translates into a bigger media market, but one not growing as fast.

Spanish-language newspapers saw a slight bump in overall circulation in 2006, up to 17.8 million from 17.6 million, but the bulk of that came from growth among print weeklies, often in newer communities. On the broadcast side, in the first week of measuring Spanish-language broadcasting as part of all programming in 2007, Nielsen’s new system showed Univision beating every broadcast network among viewers ages 18 to 34, although three weeks later, Univision had slid to fourth place.

Footnotes

1. Sirius Radio and XM Radio press releases.