Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Audience

Audience

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The audience for network television news programs shrank again in 2008, continuing a quarter- century of decline.

To a greater degree than before, Americans turned instead to other outlets for news. On election night, for example, the total audience watching cable channels nearly equaled that watching the broadcast television networks for the first time.

For all that, however, nearly 23 million viewers still tune into the three nightly newscasts each day, several times the number that are tuned into the three cable news channels at any given moment during prime time.

Among major trends in 2008:

• The three commercial nightly newscasts over all lost viewers for the year, although the declines were about half of those of recent years. In the race among the networks, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams remained No. 1 and even had slight gains in audience. ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson remained second although it lost virtually all of the audience gains it enjoyed a year earlier. The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric fell farther behind.

• The audience for the morning news shows fell for the fourth year in a row.  But those losses, too, were not evenly spread across the board. NBC’s Today Show, the longtime leader, gained viewers while the second-place ABC’s Good Morning America lost. The CBS Early Show posted a slight 1 percent loss in viewers for the year.

• NBC’s coverage of the 2008 Olympics in August was the second-most watched Olympic Games ever, and there is some evidence this translated into temporary viewership gains for NBC’s evening and morning news programs. Both NBC Nightly News and the Today Show enjoyed a bump of almost 1 million viewers each in August when NBC was broadcasting the games. The gains did not last.

• Two full years with a younger set of network anchors has done nothing to attract younger viewers to the evening newscasts. The viewership of the morning news shows also got older on average.

Nightly Newscasts

Even in a presidential election year, with intense interest in the campaign and the economy, the audience for network nightly news continued to shrink, though a slower rate than in the past.  And there were signs late in the year of Americans turning back to the medium in hard times.

The audience jumped in September when Wall Street declined sharply and the major political parties nominated their candidates. And the audience numbers kept growing after that.  By January 2009, nightly news viewership was higher than it had been a year earlier on the eve of the presidential primaries. (see the Cable Audience Section)

But in the end, the growth in fall and early winter was not enough to lift viewership for the year over 2007.

Evening News Viewership
January 2008 to January 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

For the year, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, the networks combined averaged 22.8 million viewersa night, a drop of 273,000, or 1%, compared with 2007. This is a smaller decline, however, than in recent years. Over the past 25 years, the audience has fallen about 1 million per year, while the U.S. population has grown an average of 2.8 million a year.1

Evening News Viewership Over Time
1980-2008, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Household ratings, another measurement of audience size, reveal the percentage of all television householdstuned to a particular program. In 2008, the three network nightly news programs together pulled in a combined a household rating of 15.6, meaning 15.6% of television households were tuned to network news programs. That was down 2.5% from 16 in 2007, according to Nielsen.2

The third measuring stick for audience is share, or the percentage of just those television sets in use that are tuned to a particular program. In 2008, the average share for the three newscasts declined 6.7%, to 28, down from 30 in 2007, according to data from Nielsen.

To get a sense of the extent of decline over time, consider 1980, the year that CNN began, and U.S News & World Report asked “Is TV News Growing Too Powerful?” For the month of November of that year, total viewership of the network news programs was 52.1 million, household ratings were 42.3, and the share was 75.  Thus since 1980, if one compares November to November data, nightly network news viewership has fallen 53%, ratings have fallen 61%, and share 64%.3

Evening News Household Ratings Over Time
1980-2008, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Evening News Share Over Time
1993-2008, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

The Race Among the Networks

The race among the three network evening newscasts was a case of the audience leader pulling somewhat farther ahead and the No. 3 program falling notably farther behind.

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, the No. 1 rated program, had its audience grow to an average 8.6 million viewers a night for the year, an increase of 3%, or about 272,000 viewers, from the year before. That represented an average household rating of 5.8 for the year, up from 5.7 in 2007, and share of 11, same as the year before.4

Evening News Viewership
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

ABC, which had made gains in 2007, gave them back in 2008. ABC’s World News Tonight with Charles Gibson averaged 8.1 million viewers in 2008, a loss of about 250,000 viewers, or 3%, from 2007. It is also roughly the same number of viewers ABC gained in 2007 after Gibson took over the anchor chair. Its household rating for the year was 5.6, down from 5.8 the year before, and its share was 10, down from 11 in 2007.5

The third-rated CBS Evening News with Katie Couric suffered the largest audience losses, though they were less than the year before. The program had an average nightly viewership of 6.1 million viewers for the year, a drop of 5% year to year, or about 195,000 viewers. That decline, though, is less than half as big as the year prior’s drop of 13.4%. Couric drew an average household rating of 4.2 for the year, down from 4.5 the year before, and share of 7, down from 8.6

Were those numbers helped by Couric’s interviews with GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in late September? The evidence, on balance, suggests they may have been, although more people watched the Couric interviews on YouTube than on CBS (see the sidebar in the Network Audience Section). Since September, CBS gained viewers month-to-month four out of five months, compared with just once for ABC (in September during Gibson interviews with Palin) and twice for NBC (November and January). The only month CBS did not gain was in November, when it basically flat.

In other words, Couric, who according to most critics had a more successful year journalistically in 2008 than 2007, and who airs on the network with the strongest prime-time entertainment ratings, did see the trend line at the end of the year become more positive. But even with the late-year gains, her program in 2008 still lost audience faster than its rivals for the year over all.

Evening News Household Ratings
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Evening News Share
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

In share, or the percentage of television sets in use tuned to news during the half-hour, NBC was at 11 for the year, ABC was at 10, and CBS 7.

Earlier in the year, Couric’s persistently poor ratings led to speculation that she could be replaced as anchor before the expiration of her contract in 2011. Those discussions reportedly included finding Couric a spot on 60 Minutes (where she is a contributor) or a syndicated talk show.

By fall, however, network executives remained supportive in public of her performance as anchor.7 CBS President and CEO Les Moonves strongly backed Couric after the conventions in early September. “We all wish the ratings were better,” Moonves said. “I think the conventions accentuated what a phenomenal talent she is. She is great on her feet. She is a great interviewer. She’s great at passing the ball around. I think she did an extraordinary job, and I was extremely proud of her and our entire CBS News team during the conventions. I think we showed how good we were. I really do. Ratings notwithstanding, we’re doing a terrific job.”8

Those comments came, moreover, before Couric gained praise among journalists for her September interviews with Palin.

Looking forward, what is to be made of the gains in network viewership late in 2008 and early in 2009? During the last week of January 2009, the CBS Evening News drew its biggest weekly average in two years, ABC’s World News Tonight had its largest weekly average in a year, and NBC’s Nightly News drew its biggest one-day audience in three years.9 For the month of January as a whole, network audiences were up 1% compared to the same month the year before. All three networks made gains as they focused reporting on the ailing economy. But the question, obviously, is whether the networks can sustain that for the year and reverse the long audience decline. Some hope that hard times may bring back lost viewers, people not inclined to cable talk or the Internet.

Network News vs. Cable

Precisely which factors have played the biggest role in the decline of nightly news audiences? Sorting that out precisely is impossible. As we have noted in earlier years, various factors are at play— fewer people home at the dinner hour, a preference among some for the more opinionated style of many cable news programs, or maybe simply the convenience of cable, plus the control and convenience of the Internet, or some combination. We have offered the most in-depth analysis of this in the Cable Section of our 2004 report.

But there is a window of sorts on understanding one dimension of this—the degree to which audiences may choose cable over network news when given the choice. That window opens when the networks and their cable rivals compete head to head by covering the same event at the same time. Election years offer an especially useful frame for this window because there are similar moments every four years that allow us to compare that competition over time.

The networks have tended to remain dominant during these head-to-head moments, even though they have cut back on coverage. It has become common during the first hours of political conventions, for instance, for the networks to air reruns of old entertainment programs, ceding these conventions hours to cable.

In 2008, the cable channels came closer than ever to surpassing the networks, though they didn’t quite get there. On election night, the big three broadcast networks attracted an average of 32.9 million viewers between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. That was down 9% from election night 2004.

The big three cable news channels, by contrast, attracted 27.2 million viewers on average during that period, up 58% from 2004 (see discussion of election audiences in Cable Audience Section).

During the conventions a few weeks earlier, the three major cable networks had also come closer than ever to the combined audience of ABC, CBS and NBC.10 At the Democratic convention, the networks averaged 14.1 million viewers during the 10 p.m. hour, while the cable news channels averaged 10.1 million. During the Republican convention the networks averaged 15.2 million, and the cable news channels 11.3 million.11

Political Convention Viewership, 2008
Network and Cable Viewership of RNC and DNC Conventions
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

(The combined audience of cable and network news for the conventions appeared to be a record in 2008, thanks in part to heightened campaign interest and in part to population growth. About 48 million households watched the conventions in 2008, up markedly from 32 million households in 2004.) 12

Political Convention Viewership
Total households watching conventions on cable or network TV, 1960 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Totals for 1960-1980 are ABC, CBS and NBC. 1992-1996 includes those networks as well as CNN and PBS. 2000 and 2004 include those as well as MSNBC and Fox but drops PBS. 2008 figures include all from 2004 plus BET, TV One, Univision and Telemundo.

Comparing the networks’ popularity versus cable the rest of the time is more complicated. By the most basic measure, ratings, network nightly news still dwarfs cable. In 2008, night in and night out, the 22.8 million viewers who on average watched the three nightly newscasts was nearly seven times larger than the combined audience of the three main cable news channels at any given moment in prime time (3.5 million viewers) (see Cable Audience Section)

But given the nature of cable, ratings comparisons with network evening newscasts do not tell the whole story. Viewers may tune into cable at different times during the day.
To discern the degree to which people rely on cable vs. network news more generally, survey data are also helpful. Here, one can see that while the ratings for the evening newscasts are still vastly larger than for even the most popular cable shows, cable’s universe of viewers is much closer to the networks’ in size. More Americans for some years have said they regularly watch cable news (39%) than watch the three nightly newscasts on the traditional networks (29%), according to data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.13

But this does not include network morning programs. When the number of Americans who watch those programs are added to the mix—eliminating duplicate viewers who watch both—the network news audience (39.3% of Americans) was essentially the same as cable news’ (39.6%).

In short, while many people get news now from multiple sources, and network and cable have different strengths, cable is a substantial factor in the decline of network news audiences that began in the 1980 at the time that cable television began to grow. But the offerings on cable are also different enough that network news has remained, in many ways, remarkably resilient.

Nightly News Audience Demographics

Another challenge for the evening network newscasts is attracting younger viewers. In 2008, they made no progress on this front.

The median age of nightly news viewers was 61.3 years for all three evening newscasts in 2008, according to data provided by Magna Global USA, a media buying firm. That was virtually unchanged than in 2007, when the median age of all three networks averaged 61.4. The median age was roughly 60 years of age between 2004 and 2006.

These demographics are important. Some television news professionals say the industry barely looks at overall ratings anymore, given how important younger demographics are to advertisers on the theory that younger viewers are more fluid in their consumer choices.

In the competition among the networks for demographics, NBC fared best. The network managed to lower the median age of its viewership from the previous year and had the youngest of the three networks though only by a matter of months. The median age of NBC Nightly News viewers was 61.1 in 2008, down from 61.6 in 2007.

The audience for the CBS Evening News was the oldest, with a median age of 61.4. That was older than last year’s median age of 61 for the newscast. And the audience for ABC World News audience had a median age of 61.3 in 2008, slightly down from the median of 61.5 in 2007.

One bright spot for the networks is their websites. The majority of network news website visitors are under the age of 50, according to Quantcast, an online audience measurement service. In December 2008, 72% of visitors to CBSNews.com and 61% at MSNBC.com were under age 50. And more than a quarter of the audience is under age 34 (28%) for MSNBC.com and 36% at CBSNews.com.14

Median Age of Nightly News Viewers
2002, 2004 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Totals for 1960-1980 are ABC, CBS and NBC. 1992-1996 includes those networks as well as CNN and PBS. 2000 and 2004 include those as well as MSNBC and Fox but drops PBS. 2008 figures include all from 2004 plus BET, TV One, Univision and Telemundo.

Morning News

Despite some bright spots, the news for the networks’ morning shows, as a group, was also worrisome.

In 2008, the combined viewership for morning shows fell for the fourth year in a row despite a spike during the fall campaign for president. Almost all of that decline came from problems at one program, ABC’s Good Morning America. Still, it meant fewer people watching network morning shows.

Total morning news show viewership averaged 13.1 million in 2008, down 2% from 2007 despite a surge of viewers in the news-heavy month of November, according to data from Nielsen.

Average household ratings fell 4% to 10 in 2008, down from 10.4 the year before. Share fell 3% to 33, down from 34.15

At Good Morning America, viewership fell 8% in 2008, to 4.4 million viewers, a loss of 368,000 from 2007.

Household ratings also fell 8%, to 3.4, down from 3.7 the year before. Share dropped 8% as well, to 11, down from 12.16

While GMA fell, NBC’s Today Show gained, although it picked up only half of the audience ABC lost. The Today Show, which finished first for the 12th consecutive year, averaged 5.5 million viewers in 2008, a gain of 151,000, or 3% from 2007, according to Nielsen data. Household ratings and share remained the same year to year, at 4.2 and 14, respectively. The success of the Today Show is even more impressive given that the network ranked fourth in prime-time programming in 2008, which means fewer people were tuned to NBC when they turned off the set the night before.17

And CBS’ Early Show, still No. 3, saw average daily viewership fall slightly by 44,000 people, or about 1%, to 3.1 million viewers each morning. The relatively modest fall may have resulted from its increasingly popular prime-time lineup. CBS ended the 2007-2008 race a strong second to Fox, and performed more strongly than all other networks during the first half of the 2008-2009 season. . Viewers who turn off their televisions at night tuned to one network historically are more likely to stay tuned to that network in the morning.

CBS News’ household ratings also fell slightly to 2.4 from 2.5 last year, and the program’s share remained at 8 year to year.

Morning News Viewership
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Despite the differences by network, the overall decline in morning shows for the fourth year may well be a source of new concern. While evening ratings were declining in recent years, morning audiences had been more stable.

The audience erosion in the mornings – however incremental the declines — suggests that this economically powerful franchise may now begin to see more problems.

Morning News Household Ratings
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Morning News Share
2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Morning News Demographics

As it is in the evening, another potential concern for the morning shows is age. The median age of the morning audience inched upward in 2008 to 53.9 in 2008, from 53.8 a year before, according to data from Magna Global USA.

CBS’s Early Show is the youngest (52.9, up from 52.8 in 2007). The Today Show is in the middle, though it aged the most (at 53.7, up from 53.4 in 2007). ABC’s Good Morning America had the oldest audience, again, 55.1, although that was slightly younger than the 55.3 a year earlier.

Median Age of Morning News Viewers
2003 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

Olympics Coverage Gives NBC a Boost

One bright spot, at least for NBC, was the Olympics. The Beijing Games translated into more viewers both for evening and morning newscasts in August, although the gains did not hold up after the month was over.

The Nightly News audience jumped by more than 940,000 viewers in August when the games were broadcast, after declining for the previous several months. The ABC and CBS newscasts lost viewers in August.

Month-to-month Network Evening News Audience, 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

And the Today Show drew 875,000 more viewers in August than the preceding month. The total was 789,000 more than in August 2007. Even without the August boost, however, the show would have remained the most-watched morning show on network television.

The network’s prime-time broadcasts of the games drew an average of 27.7 million viewers, 13% higher than the 24.6 million who viewed the 2004 Athens Games. It was the largest audience for a Summer Olympics outside the United States since the 1976 Montreal Games.18

As the U.S. broadcast rights holder, NBC had a number of benefits over its rivals when it came to access to participants and video. The network also said that part of its ratings success was attributable to its decision to create a comprehensive website devoted to the games. Among other things, the website allowed users to stream video footage of events, highlights and updates on demand.19

Month-to-month Network Morning News Audience, 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

The Internet, rather than replacing television viewers, actually encouraged additional viewing on television, NBC said, pointing to the higher ratings as evidence.

“The results have been phenomenal,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “We’re fairly certain that multiplatform distribution is fueling that interest [in network prime time] and driving everyone to share the Olympics together as they have since the beginning. They’re gathering in greater numbers than ever.”20

However, NBC didn’t have a lock on Olympic traffic online. Yahoo Sports also drew large numbers of news consumers, and without featuring any video. On a few days during the games, Yahoo Sports actually topped NBC’s traffic numbers, even without the lure of video.

The Sunday Shows

The one place where the three networks showed genuine gain in audience in 2008 was on their Sunday talk shows.

The 2008 season was the 61st for Meet the Press, and the program finished as the most highly rated Sunday interview show for the 11th consecutive year, beating out ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday. (CBS typically runs third in ratings, and that is in part due to the fact that it remains only a half-hour long.)

In December, NBC newsman David Gregory was named as the new host. He inherited a show that was a substantially more important part of the NBC News than the one that the late Tim Russert took over in 1991, when it was third place in the ratings. During his tenure, Russert expanded the program to an hour and established it as the ratings leader, supplanting This Week With David Brinkley. “Tim reinvented the Sunday talk show,” said Chris Wallace, who moderated “Meet the Press” in 1987 and 1988, much as Brinkley and a team of producers had a decade earlier, when they were the first to expand to an hour, add a reporter discussion group and additional guests.21

Russert not only made the program a financial engine for the news division, but his interview style also became something of a test for political figures. If they wanted to prove their mettle, handling a Russert interview was part of the test.

Footnotes

1. According to the U.S. Census, the county’s population was 233,791,994 in 1983. The estimate for 2008 was 303,824,640

2. Another way to measure ratings is by individuals 2 and older who tuned in. The “P2+”rating for all network nightly newscasts in 2008 was 8, meaning that roughly 8% of all Americans over the age of 2 were watching.

3. This comparison, as well as many of our charts, uses November to November data because that is the data format available going back to 1980. November data tend to be slightly higher than the annualized average for 12 months for each year. November is a “sweeps” month during which audiences are measured. In November 2008, an average of 24.5 million people watched the three nightly network newscasts each night, equaling a household rating of 16.3, representing a share of 27.

4. The “P2+” rating, or the percent of viewers 2 and older who tuned in, for the NBC Nightly News was 3.0 in 2008 and 2.9 in 2007

5. The “P2+” rating for ABC World News was 2.8 in 2008 and 2.9 in 2007

6. The “P2+” rating for CBS was 2.1 in 2008 and 2.3 in 2007

7. Marisa Guthrie, “Katie Couric Likely to Leave CBS Evening News After Election,” Broadcasting & Cable, April 10, 2008

8. Marisa Guthrie, “Moonves Again Backs Couric After Conventions,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 10, 2008

9. David Bauder, “Tough Economic News is Good for Evening Newscasts,” Associated Press, February 4, 2009

10. Matea Gold, “The race for TV viewers,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2008

11. Nielsen Media Research, used under license

12. Nielsen media research, used under license. The number of households watching the conventions on television —cable or network—was just 26 million in 1960 and grew unevenly to 40.5 million in 1992, a record that stood until 2008. Also, 2008 was not a record when it came to household ratings, a number that is stabilized to account for population growth. The household rating was 42 in 2008, up from 30 in the previous presidential election year. Prior to 2008, ratings for the events had been falling since 1976 when they hit 57, according to Nielsen. The conventions also had a rating of 57 in 1960.

13. “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 17, 2008

14. Quantcast.com, accessed January 12, 2009

15. The “P2+” rating, or the percent of viewers 2 and older, watching morning news shows, was 4.5 in 2008, down from 4.7 in 2007

16. The “P2+” rating, or the percent of viewers 2 and older,, who watched the Today Show was 1.9 in 2008, unchanged from 2007; Good Morning America was 1.5, down from 1.7 in 2007; and CBS Early Morning was 1.1 in 2008, unchanged from 2007.

17. During the 2007-2008 network broadcast season, NBC ranked fourth in number of viewers, drawing an average of 7.75 million per week. That compared to 8.87 million for ABC, 10.08 million for CBS and 10.88 for Fox. The 2008-2009 season shows a similar ranking.

18. Steven Herbert, “Beijing Games Finish with Highest Primetime Summer Olympics Viewership Since 1996,” City News Service, August 26, 2008

19. Jon Lafayette, “NBC Measures Cross-Platform Viewership, Cites Olympic Gains,” TV Week, August 13, 2008

20. Jon Lafayette, “NBC Measures Cross-Platform Viewership, Cites Olympic Gains,” TV Week, August 13, 2008

21. Brian Stelter, “Tim Russert’s Turnaround of Meet the Press,” New York Times, June 13, 2008