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PBS

The PBS NewsHour got a new name, a change in format, a new website and a stronger emphasis on digital news heading into 2010.

After years of audience loss, the program also experienced an uptick in viewers in the fiscal year that included the 2008 presidential election.

Change in Format

In December 2009 the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was rebranded as the PBS NewsHour, which meant that for the first time since its inception in 1983 the program did not carry the name of anchor Jim Lehrer.

The program also underwent a change in format, returning to a two-anchor setup it abandoned when Robert MacNeil retired from the program in 1995.1

The new title and a switch to a two-anchor format hinted at lessening Lehrer’s day-to-day role on the nightly newscast.

After the transition Lehrer remained as the executive editor and served as the primary anchor. Senior correspondents Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown rotate in the secondary anchor role.

Lehrer and the second anchors alternate, introducing story segments and leading in-studio interviews.

With an eye toward quickening the pace of the program, the NewsHour also changed the way it presented news. The program now generally starts with a story package, rather than rundown of news headlines.

Taped packages are also shorter, on average, than in the past. Under the new format, story packages are about 6 to 8 minutes long, compared to 7 to 9 minutes previously. And 12-minute stories are increasingly rare. Generally, the lengths of interview segments were unchanged.

Another objective is to combine the newsgathering and production resources of the broadcast and website. The NewsHour hired an on-air/online correspondent, Hari Sreenivasan, to bridge the two formats. Sreenivasan anchors the news summary on the nightly broadcast that Lehrer formerly did, and it now comes after the lead segment. He also does them throughout the day online.2

The focus on breaking news coverage on the Web also has translated to a greater emphasis on breaking events on the broadcast. David Sit, vice president of NewsHour and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, told PEJ that the program would remain primarily a source for analysis of the news, but would air more original video reporting and late-breaking coverage than it had previously.3

Online, the NewsHour website was redesigned and launched in December 2009. According to NewsHour officials, the simultaneous remaking of the program and its website was done with an eye toward making its news reports better suited to digital platforms, including outside video websites and social networking sites like Twitter.4

The closer integration of the television and digital platforms was accompanied by a physical shift: the NewsHour’s broadcast and website staffs moved into a single integrated newsroom. Previously the Web staff worked out of a separate office a block away from the PBS studio.5

New on the website in 2009 were The Rundown, a blog of news and analyses, Web-only video segments, extended interview material not used on air and microsites devoted to NewsHour’s special projects.

Audience

The NewsHour attracted 1.2 million viewers during the average minute of programming in the season that ran from July 2008 to June 2009, according to the most recent available data from the NewsHour research department. That was up 9% from an average of 1.1 million viewers in the previous year.

Eliza Jacobs, associate director of PBS research, attributed much of increase to the NewsHour’s coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign and the public’s interest in the new administration.6

For the 2008-09 season, the number of different people watching the NewsHour each week was 5.5 million, unchanged from previous season.

In general the NewsHour routinely draws each weekday night about one-fifth the ratings of the average commercial network news program, but PBS managed to hold on to its ratings during the 2008-09 season while those of the commercial network newscasts dipped slightly during that period.

The NewsHour drew a household rating of 0.8 for the 2008-09 season, flat from the previous season. That compared with an average rating of 5 for the network news programs from July 2008 to June 2009. Average ratings for the network news programs were down by less than 1% in the same period.

PBS vs. Commercial Evening News Household Ratings
PBS Fiscal Year, July 2008 to June 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PBS Audience Research; Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Audience Demographics

The PBS NewsHour’s audience is older and more educated than viewers of the network news programs and the general population.

The lion’s share (72%) of the NewsHour’s audience, is 55 years or older. In addition, 21% are age 25 to 54.7

Fully 55% of NewsHour viewers hold at least a college degree, compared to 27% of the general population. According to the most recent survey data by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 23% of network evening news viewers and 28% of cable news viewers hold at least a college degree.8

NewsHour viewers, on average, are about as affluent as the general population. About 42% of NewsHour viewers made $75,000 or more, equaling the percentage for Americans generally. In 2008, 24% of nightly news viewers and 19% for cable news had household incomes of $75,000 or more.

Composition of the NewsHour Audience
Percentage of NewsHour Audience, July 2008 to June 2009

Source: PBS Audience Research

Economics

Despite a decrease in revenue, which was driven by a one-time grant the prior year,  the NewsHour made gains in stabilizing its finances in 2009.

Excluding a one-time $5.2 million grant the NewsHour received for coverage of the 2008 presidential elections the previous year, the program budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2010 increased 15%, about $3.5 million, to $27.7 million. The budget increase was primarily due to more corporate underwriting in the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Corporate underwriting went from $5.7 million in 2008-2009 to $10 million in 2009-2010.

Sit told PEJ that the 2010-11 budget would probably stay level from the previous fiscal year at about $27 million. The program gets about 40% of its funding from the federal government, 35% from corporate underwriting and another 25% from foundations. But the overall level of funding is not certain. “In this economy, it’s very hard to project a budget,” Sit said. “It’s constantly in flux. But it appears that corporate underwriting has thawed.”

PBS also began in 2009 to seek sponsorships for online video and other content but expressed some concerns about pursuing that strategy too aggressively. “We want to make sure we aren’t devaluing our broadcast sponsors,” Sit said.

News Investment

Staffing figures provided by NewsHour showed a total of 114 employees for the television program and its affiliated website, as of February 2010. That is down slightly from a year earlier, when the program listed 115 employees.

There was a net loss of one staffers based in Washington, where the show is produced. In all 102 editors, reporters, correspondents, producers and support staff were based there, down from 103 a year earlier. Six correspondents were based in NewsHour’s Washington headquarters, up one from 2009.

There was no change in the number of positions in two domestic bureaus. Nine staffers are based in San Francisco and three in Denver.

The NewsHour maintains no permanent staffing abroad. In 2009 the program teamed with the start-up website GlobalPost to provide additional foreign news coverage.

The partnership represented a change in approach for the NewsHour, which had previously focused on providing context and analysis to global events, not necessarily original reporting. “It gives us the ability to get some very fast reporting on the ground — faster than we could assemble a team to go cover an event abroad,” Sit said of the partnership with GlobalPost, which had correspondents in 50 countries in 2009.

The new partnership was not meant to supplant the NewsHour producing its own coverage abroad. “By no means are we relying on [GlobalPost] to do most of our foreign reporting,” Sit said.

He said the NewsHour staff would continue to produce the same amount of foreign coverage on location, perhaps even more in 2010. Speaking of the additional funding for foreign coverage, Sit said that the money goes farther than it once did. “We have efficiencies,’’ he said. “We use small teams and have better equipment. With lower costs, it allows us to produce more bang for the buck.”

Digital

Online, the NewsHour website saw a pickup in traffic following a relaunch in December 2009 that coincided with the new broadcast format. The NewsHour website was frequently referenced on the program. Sit told PEJ in March 2010 that website traffic had increased about 30% the previous month in year-over-year comparisons. And video downloads doubled in that month, according to Sit.

One of the main objectives of the 2009 rebranding of the NewsHour was to draw viewers of the broadcast to its website and vice versa. In general, there was little overlap between the program’s audiences for the broadcast and website before December 2009.9

“We’ve only been at this a few months,” Sit told PEJ. “I think it’s too early to tell, but we’ve been encouraged in the short term with bringing viewers of the broadcast onto the new platforms. But it’s not a fact at this point.”

For the 2008-09 season, the NewsHour website had a monthly average of 864,000 unique visitors, according to an analysis of Google Analytics data provided by PBS research.10 Big spikes in traffic, corresponding to the 2008 presidential election and the inauguration in January 2009, were unusual. By comparison, in the last six months of 2009 (the first six months of the NewsHour’s broadcast season), the website averaged 610,000 unique visitors.

Unique Visitors to PBS Website
July 2008 to January 2010
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PBS Research based on Google Analytics measures


Footnotes

1. The NewsHour’s broadcast season corresponds with the fiscal year, which runs from July to June.

2. Elizabeth Jensen, “Stressing the Web, ‘NewsHour’ Begins an Overhaul,” New York Times, November 30, 2009.

3. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president, NewsHour, February 8, 2010.

4. Elizabeth Jensen, “ ‘NewsHour’ on PBS to Get Makeover,” New York Times, May 12, 2009.

5. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president, NewsHour, February 8, 2010.

6. Eliza Jacobs, associate director, PBS Research, e-mail communication on February 18, 2009.

7. Figures are based on average viewership of the NewsHour from July 2008 to June 2009.

8. The NewsHour demographic findings are from Nielsen data collected and aggregated throughout the year. The Pew data are from a survey released in August 2008:  “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 17, 2008. Its figures are weighted to the general adult population.

9. Elizabeth Jensen, “Stressing the Web, ‘NewsHour’ Begins an Overhaul,” New York Times, November 30, 2009.

10. PBS NewsHour website, July 1, 2008-January 31, 2010. Overall Traffic, Absolute Unique Visitors.