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Audience

Network TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Audience

After an encouraging uptick at the end of 2008, the audience for network evening television news programs continued its generation-long decline in 2009.

The more recent decline in morning network news viewership, meanwhile, continued.

Collectively, in the evening, the three network newscasts lost more than 565,000 viewers during the year, or 2.5%, from the year before. That is a slower rate of decline than they had posted for most the last decade.

The decline in the broadcast audience size for three morning programs has been more recent. They lost 300,000 viewers, or 2.4%. That represents a rising rate of decline and marks the fifth straight down year after a period of relative stability.

Among major trends in 2009:

  • Ratings leader NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams gained slightly in audience, the only newscast to add viewers. ABC’s World News remained No. 2 in the ratings but saw the steepest audience losses, making up 80% of the overall audience decline for the nightly newscasts. The third-place CBS Evening News with Katie Couric lost viewers at a slightly slower rate than in 2008.
  • The broadcast audience losses for the morning news also were not evenly spread across the board. Mirroring the performance of World News, second-place ABC’s Good Morning America saw the biggest losses, followed by No. 3 CBS Early Show. NBC’s Today Show, the longtime leader, posted a 1% loss in viewers for the year.1
  • Despite declines in viewership and ratings, the morning shows mostly held on to their share of audience, or the percentage of people who were watching TV during those hours. That suggests that some of this audience loss is from people no longer watching TV at all at that time.
  • Late in 2009, Diane Sawyer replaced Charles Gibson as anchor of World News Tonight on ABC; former This Week host George Stephanopoulos took Sawyer’s place as lead anchor of Good Morning America. World News got a short-term bump in ratings after Sawyer took over, but Stephanopoulos’ move did not have the same effect.

Nightly Newscasts

Combined, the commercial network evening broadcasts were down in all three of the major audience measures: total viewers, ratings and the share of households watching television in 2009.

Evening News Viewership
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

The audience for network evening news in 2009 was also smaller in all but two months when compared to the same months of the previous year, possibly due to the temporary boost the year before in viewers following the presidential election.  For the year as a whole, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, the networks averaged a combined 22.3 million viewers a night, a drop of 565,000, or 2.5%, compared with 2008. The decline was greater than in 2008, when the average audience decreased by 1% or 273,000 viewers.

Since 1980 network evening newscasts have lost an average of one million viewers a year. Smaller declines over the past two years (300,000 in 2008 and 565,000 in 2009) suggest audience erosion is slowing but not reversing.

Evening News Viewership Over Time
1980-2009, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Viewership taken for month of November

Household ratings, another metric of audience size, measure the percentage of all television households tuned to a particular program. In 2009, the three network nightly news programs together pulled in a combined a household rating of 15, meaning 15% of television households were tuned to network news programs. That was down from 15.5 for the same period in 2008, according to Nielsen.

Evening News Household Ratings
1980-2009, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Ratings taken for month of November

Evening News Share
1980-2009, November to November
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Share taken for month of November

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. The average share for the three newscasts was down slightly to 27 in 2009, from 28 in 2008, according to data from Nielsen.

The Race Among the Networks

Looking at individual programs, not all three nightly newscasts saw audiences shrink.
NBC Nightly News, nowwith Brian Williams, not only led its nightly news competitors for the 12th year in a row, but it gained viewers as well. Its broadcast audience grew by an average of 65,000 viewers a night, just under 1% to slightly over 8.6 million.

That represented an average household rating of 5.7 for the year, down from 5.8 in 2007. (Viewership can rise while ratings fall because the number of households per ratings point increases with growth in population. In 2009, one ratings point now represented 1,149,000 households, or 1 percent of the 114.9 million television households in the United States. The number of all television households was up by 400,000, meaning one ratings point covers 4,000 more households than in 2008.)

The NBC Nightly News share fell to 13.8, down from 13.9 in 2008 (meaning that 13.8% of households watching TV were tuned to Brian Williams’ program on an average night.

ABC World News Tonight saw the biggest drop in 2009 but remained in second place. The newscast lost an average of 444,000 viewers a night, bringing its viewership down to 7.7 million in 2009. The decrease represented a 5.4% decrease from 2008, when World News averaged 8.1 million viewers.

World News’ household ratings decreased 6% in 2009 and share was down slightly, to 10.8, from 10.9 in 2008. The program did, however, get a small ratings boost in early 2010, the probable result of viewers tuning in to watch Diane Sawyer, who took over from Charles Gibson in the last weeks of 2009.

The early numbers in January suggested that viewers were sampling a new anchor’s newscast. If history is any guide, that creates the possibility of viewers changing allegiances. There are no data over the last 20 years, however, to suggest that a change in anchor can increase the pool of evening news viewers.

Evening News Viewership, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, which posted the largest audience losses among the half-hour newscasts in 2008, saw smaller decreases in 2009. The program had an average nightly audience of 5.9 million viewers for the year, down 3% or about 186,000 viewers year to year. That decline is less than the previous year’s drop of 5% and much less than the 13% plunge in 2007, when Couric took over. For comparison’s sake, the most popular prime time cable news program, Fox News Channel’s opinion-and-analysis hour, The O’Reilly Factor, has an audience of 3.3 million.

CBS Evening News drew an average household rating of 4.1 for the year, down from 4.2 the year before, and share of 7.8, down from 7.9 in 2008.

Evening News Household Ratings, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Evening News Share, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Nightly News Audience Demographics

Network news divisions have failed for years to attract additional younger viewers to their evening programs. In 2009, the audience for nightly news grew yet older.

The median age of nightly news viewers was 62.3 for all three evening newscasts in 2009, according to an analysis of copyrighted Nielsen data provided by Magna, a media buying firm. That was up by a full year from 2008, when the median age of all three networks averaged 61.3. The median age of viewers had been rising since 2004, as has the U.S. population as a whole.2

These demographics are important. Some television news professionals say the advertising industry barely looks at overall ratings anymore, given how important younger demographics (viewers between the ages of 25 and 54) are on the theory that they are more fluid in their consumer choices.

Among the networks, NBC’s audience is the youngest, although the median age crept up a bit in 2009 after falling the year before. The median age of NBC Nightly News viewers was 62.2 in 2009, up from 61.1 in 2008.

The audience for ABC World News Tonight was the oldest, with a median age of 62.9 in 2009. That was significantly older than it was the year before (61.4).

And the audience for CBS Evening news had a median age of 61.5 in 2008, basically flat from 61.4 in 2008.

Median Age of Nightly News Viewers
2004-2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Magna, analysis of copyrighted Nielsen Media Research data

Morning News

The erosion in the audience for morning news programs is a growing source of concern for the network news divisions since it is a more recent phenomenon.

In the 1990s, even as nightly audiences for network news programs started shrinking, morning shows grew.

That trend reversed in the mid-2000s and, in 2009, viewership for morning shows fell for the fifth year in a row.

Much of the decline was due to smaller audiences for ABC’s Good Morning America and the CBS Early Show, although the leading morning news show, NBC’s Today, also saw its audience ebb in 2009.3

Total morning news show viewership averaged 12.8 million in 2009, down 2.4% from 2008, according to data from Nielsen.

Morning News Viewership, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Average household ratings fell 4.5% to 9.6 in 2008, down from 10.1 the year before. Share held steady at 15 in 2009, meaning that all of the audience erosion is attributable to the declining popularity of television as a medium in this timeslot as opposed to the morning news programs in particular.

NBC’s Today Show, which has led among the morning news broadcasts for 13 years, maintained its audience share for the timeslot, but lost viewers and saw lower ratings.
The program saw about 69,000 fewer viewers in 2009, just slightly under the 5.5 million total from 2008, representing a 1.2% decrease in viewership from the previous year.
Household ratings were down 3.1% to 4.1, from 4.2 in 2008. Share was unchanged from the previous year.

At Good Morning America, viewership fell 3.4% in 2009, to 4.3 million viewers, a loss of 151,400 from 2008.

Household ratings fell 5.3%, to 3.2, down from 3.4 the year before. Share was down by 4.3%, to 10.8, from 10.9 in 2008.

The arrival of George Stephanopoulos as the lead anchor of Good Morning America did not boost ratings as did Diane Sawyer’s arrival at World News Tonight. An analysis of data from January 2010 showed declines for Good Morning America in all measures compared with figures from the previous year.

The picture was mixed for the CBS Early Show. Viewership was down by 98,000 viewers, or 3%, in 2009, to 3.1 million.

Household ratings were down 5.4% to 2.3, from 2.4 in 2008. But share increased 3% to 8.8, from 8.6 in 2008.

Morning News Household Ratings, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Morning News Share, by Network
2008 vs. 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Morning News Demographics

Similar to evening news, the median age of viewers of morning news increased significantly in 2009, to 55.2 from 53.9 in 2008.

NBC’s Today Show audience was the youngest in 2009 at 54.1, but went up from 53.7 in 2008. CBS’s Early Show was in the middle, at 55.8 in 2009, up the most among the three networks’ morning shows, from 52.9 in 2008. ABC’s Good Morning America had the oldest audience, 56.2, up from 55.1 a year earlier.

Median Age of Morning News Viewers
2004-2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Magna, analysis of copyrighted Nielsen Media Research data

(For a discussion of audience trends for prime-time magazine programs click here.)


Footnotes

1. PEJ analyzes audience data for the first hour of each network’s morning newscast.

2. Pew Hispanic Center computations based on 2000-2009 population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2009.

3. Data for the network morning news programs are for the first hour of each show.