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Audience

Cable TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Audience

Introduction

After a blockbuster election year for cable in 2008, the total cable audience grew even more in 2009. The gains were made largely by one channel, Fox News, whose prime-time and daytime audiences grew by nearly a quarter. CNN lost prime-time viewers, and MSNBC was up just slightly. HLN (CNN’s stablemate), like Fox, registered increases.
Daytime programming had the greatest increases: median viewership growth was double that of prime time in 2009, and both Fox and CNN made significant gains during these hours. CNN’s problems came in the evening.

Cable Audience Over All

Even without a historic presidential election to cover, the overall universe of cable news viewership grew.

Cable ratings growth can be measured using one of two calculations — the mean (the simple average) or the median (the number in the middle of a series of figures).1

This report offers the numbers in both forms, but the Project, in consultation with various experts, considers median the better reflection of audience trends. (Click here to read the backgrounder on median versus mean audience measurement.)

Cable News Prime-Time Viewership
1998-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license. Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience.

During the day, viewership jumped by both median and mean calculations.

Why was there such a discrepancy between the median audience numbers and mean, including, in prime time, a gain for median and a loss in mean? The answer most likely had to do with the historic presidential election of 2008 that created a series of newsmaking events — convention speeches, candidate debates, election night itself — that attracted unprecedented prime-time audiences. These unusual events inflated the mean audience size more sharply than its median. Thus 2009 saw erosion in the mean and a slight increase in the median.

Cable News Daytime Viewership
1998-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license. Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience.

Again, the increases in mean were smaller, probably as a result of extreme peaks in 2008 election months.

2009: Channel by Channel

The separation among the three cable channels continued to widen in 2009, raising new questions about whether cable news is becoming an ideological medium, particularly in prime time, when the stations attract their largest audience, and whether a balanced approach to news can continue to appeal to viewers.

Cable News Prime-Time Viewership, by Channel
January-December 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license. Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s average prime-time viewership.

The prime-time hours continued to draw “appointment” viewers, especially with programs hosted by opinionated personalities. The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News continued to be the highest-rated program, followed by Hannity, also on Fox.

The biggest ratings changes were seen outside of prime time, where an opinionated host, Glenn Beck, attracted millions of viewers at 5 p.m. for Fox. On MSNBC, Countdown With Keith Olbermann was the channel’s strongest audience draw. CNN struggled to attract sizable audiences to its prime-time lineup, and at times was beaten by MSNBC and HLN, CNN’s sibling channel.

Cable News Viewership in 2009, by Program
Fox News CNN MSNBC HLN
7 p.m. Fox Report With Shepard Smith (1,878,000) Lou Dobbs Tonight* (759,000) Hardball With Chris Matthews (633,000) Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell (484,000)
8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor (3,343,000) Campbell Brown (831,000) Countdown With Keith Olbermann (1,157,000) Nancy Grace (943,000)
9 p.m. Hannity (2,506,000) Larry King Live (1,098,000) Rachel Maddow Show (1,019,000) Lou Dobbs replay* (464,000)
10 p.m. On the Record With Greta Van Susteren (1,976,000) Anderson Cooper 360 (978,000) Olbermann replay (695,000) Nancy Grace replay (567,000)
Source: Nielsen Media Research on MediaBistro.com
Note: Numbers in parentheses are average viewership, P2+ (Age 2 and up)
* Lou Dobbs Tonight was replaced in late September 2009 by CNN Tonight on CNN and by the Joy Behar Show on HLN.

Yet for all that, CNN continued to hold its edge in the third way of measuring audience: cume.

Cume, short for cumulative audience, counts the number of individual (or “unique”) viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes over the course of a month. Ratings, by contrast, measure how many people are watching a given program at any one moment. In CNN’s decade-long struggle against Fox News, this is one measurement by which CNN has consistently surpassed Fox News (the cume data used in this report were supplied to PEJ by CNN).

Cable News “Cume” Audience, by Channel
2002-2009, mean audience
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN
Cumulative or “cume” audience refers to the number of individual viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes over the course of a month.

Fox executives tend to discount cume, suggesting that advertisers do not care about it.2 But cume does offer an indication of how many different people might see an advertisement over time. Cume also offers, to those interested in understanding the changing ecosystem of news delivery, the broader appeal of different channels and approaches by revealing the universe of viewers of each channel rather than simply the number watching at any given moment.

Even here, though CNN maintained the edge, its cume figures fell substantially from 2008 levels, as did MSNBC’s. Fox was the only channel to remain relatively steady, with a loss of 2% in cume for the year. This also suggests that while cable ratings are up, it is not because more people are turning to cable over all. Rather, the basic universe of viewers is tuning in more often, and they are tuning in to Fox.

CNN

CNN struggled in 2009 to maintain its election-year audiences, and at times it even slipped behind MSNBC in monthly ratings to third place.

There were only two months in 2009 — January and July — when CNN’s prime-time viewership exceeded that of 2008. All the other months had declines, especially later in the year.

CNN Prime-Time Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

While the channel struggled in prime time, it had gains during the day.

CNN Daytime Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
CNN Programs

CNN executives continued to promote their channel as more objective and serious about the news than Fox or MSNBC. But this approach did not seem to attract more viewers. When the year’s ratings were tallied, none of CNN’s shows was among the top 10 in cable news. The channel’s top program was Larry King Live (1.1 million viewers on average), an interview show more oriented to celebrity and gossip news. It was down 14% from 2008 levels. CNN’s prime-time “hard” news programs, Anderson Cooper 360 and Campbell Brown, were also down for the year. Cooper’s program drew only 978,000 viewers (down 19%) and Brown’s drew 831,000 (down 17%).

Even some of CNN’s opinionated and ideological programming struggled. Lou Dobbs Tonight, which aired in the 7 p.m. hour right before prime time, became a magnet for controversy over Dobbs’ opposition to illegal immigrants in the months before he left CNN. But it was watched by only 759,000 viewers on average in 2009, down 25% from 2008.

Fox News

Fox News, the ratings leader, increased its lead over CNN and MSNBC in 2009.
For each of the first eight months of 2009, Fox’s prime-time audiences exceeded those during the same month in 2008. This changed in September, when heavy viewership associated with the presidential election boosted the year-earlier 2008 numbers.

Fox News Prime-Time Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Fox’s gains in prime time were mirrored during the day.

Fox News Daytime Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Fox Programs

As with CNN, Fox News did not change its programming strategy in 2009. It invested in it further. It added Glenn Beck and shed Sean Hannity’s liberal counterpart, Alan Colmes, both moves that appeared to help audience numbers. And gone was Brit Hume, a veteran journalist with a background in the broadcast network news who retired at the end of 2008.

Individual Fox programs dominated cable news in prime time and early evening. For the year, the top 10 programs on cable news were all Fox News shows. The O’Reilly Factor (3.34 million average viewers, up 16%) was No. 1, followed by Hannity, whose 2.51 million viewers was 14% above 2008. Glenn Beck’s average of 2.32 million viewers in 2009—up 96% from the previous year in that slot—was high especially given his 5 p.m. time slot. Beck’s program popularity was a key reason for Fox’s ratings surge in daytime over all. On the Record With Greta Van Susteren averaged 1.98 million viewers—up 11% from the year before. (For more on the offerings of these programs, see A Year in the News.)

Other Fox programs, some of which more closely resembled traditional newscasts, also fared well in 2009. Special Report With Bret Baier averaged 2.04 million viewers, up 26% from 2008. The Fox Report With Shepard Smith averaged 1.88 million viewers and was up 16%.

MSNBC

MSNBC ranked third among the three main cable news channels for audience in 2009, as it has for years. But it grew in prime time, gaining on CNN. In daytime, it was the one cable channel to lose viewers, lagging far behind its competitors for that audience.

MSNBC Prime-Time Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Daytime audience levels dropped at MSNBC, even as they grew at CNN and Fox.

MSNBC Daytime Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

MSNBC Programs

In 2009, MSNBC’s programming lineup, which maintained its formula as a liberal counterpart to Fox, was not strong enough to beat out competitors on Fox. But it was strong enough sometimes to beat some of CNN’s programs.

MSNBC’s prime-time stars, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, attracted the channel’s biggest audiences, which grew over 2008 levels. Maddow’s program drew an average of 1.02 million viewers in 2009, up 13%, and Olbermann’s drew 1.16 million, up 10%. The 10 p.m. repeat of Olbermann’s program, Countdown (695,000 average viewers), was down, however, by 17% from 2008 levels.

MSNBC reshuffled its daytime lineup substantially in 2009. One of the biggest changes outside of prime time was the addition of the Ed Show, hosted by liberal radio personality Ed Schultz, in the 6 p.m. hour. The program averaged 536,000 viewers in 2009, which was down 3% from the programming that held the slot in 2008.

HLN

CNN’s sibling channel had strong audience growth in 2009, particularly in prime time, where it grew more, by percent, than any other cable news channel. HLN honed its evening lineup, in many ways seeming to do what CNN has tried to avoid — deliver an opinion-driven, entertaining take on the news.

HLN
Median Viewership
Year Prime-Time Viewership Daytime Viewership
2009 525,000 260,000
2008 434,000 258,000
2007 353,000 235,000
2006 302,000 218,000
2005 307,000 244,000
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

In 2009, HLN not only had a new host, Jane Velez-Mitchell, to replace Glenn Beck, but it also added Joy Behar to its prime-time schedule at the end of September. Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell seemed to be a better fit on HLN than Beck was, averaging 484,000 viewers in 2009, which was 26% higher than the time slot in 2008. Behar’s host-driven take on politics and pop culture averaged 492,000 viewers in 2009. This was 37% less than the same hour’s viewership in the final quarter of 2008, which was filled by replays of Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs’ programs.

Nancy Grace, whose program focuses on crime news, continued to be the channel’s top audience draw. In 2009, Grace’s program attracted 943,000 viewers, up 35% over 2008 figures.


Footnotes

1. Throughout this report, whenever cumulative and viewership audience data are presented for an entire year, both median and mean audiences are calculated across 12 monthly averages.

2. Dirk Smillie, “Inside the Opinion Machine,” Forbes, October 22, 2009