2004 Annual Report - Cable TV Audience
Cable vs. Network
The inevitable limitations of ratings raise another issue when it comes to trying to assess the reach of cable: How many people now turn in the course of a day or a week to cable instead of the older, traditional broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC?
For all that people like to note the rise in cable's numbers, many critics are quick to point out that their ratings are nothing compared to those commanded by the old broadcasters. Indeed, if they aired on broadcast TV, even the cable network shows with the highest ratings -- "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Larry King Live," for instance -- would be considered problems. Their 1 or 2 ratings points would probably get them canceled after a week.
Consider this: In June 2003, the CBS "Evening News" was watched by 6.5 million viewers, a recent low. Yet that was still three times higher than the average prime time viewership of all three cable news channels combined during the same week.12
If the three nightly network newscast audiences in November 2003 were combined, a total of 29.3 million viewers, it would be more than 12 times the prime time audience for cable, 2.4 million viewers, during the same period.
What is more, this is comparing network shows that are on at a time when Americans increasingly aren't even home - 6:30 p.m. and even earlier in some West Coast areas -to a cable average that includes programs that are on during the heaviest television watching period, prime time. When looked at this way, the cable numbers seem even lower.
Here, again, however, the limitations of traditional ratings in trying to reflect the full impact of cable may present a problem.
The ratings numbers do capture a sense of how many people are watching the three nightly network newscasts during the dinner hour versus any given cable program. And they show a remarkable, even underestimated vigor for the old nightly newscasts. Not only are these programs substantively different than cable in the nature of their news (see Network TV Content Analysis), but they are also vastly more popular as individual programs.
Yet these simple ratings comparisons do not fully capture how many people turn to cable news versus network news generally today to get their information.
For that, survey research again may tell us more. And the survey work suggests that cable has become more important than traditional ratings reflect. Cable may have even surpassed network as a source for news and information.
For example, in 2003, the household weekly average for time spent watching cable news was 3 hours and 6 minutes, significantly higher than the 2 hours and 19 minutes spent watching broadcast news (including network news magazine shows), according to an analysis by CNN of Nielsen data. This was an increase of 41 minutes a week for cable news in 2003 and a 2-minute drop for broadcast news.13
For some time, the Pew Research Center surveys have asked people where they go for most of their national and international news. Today, more people cite cable than network, and have for some time.
In January 2003, for instance, a Pew survey asking people simply to identify whether their favored news source was cable, network or local found cable held a 36-point advantage over network (49 percent cable, 13 percent network).14 Pew has asked that same question for 10 years, and has seen cable's advantage increasing since 2001, though the gap narrowed slightly during the Iraq war.15
Survey question: Do you get most of your news about national and international issues from network TV news, from local TV news, or from cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel?
When people are asked to name a specific channel where they go for "most" of their national and international news, CNN ranks No. 1 and Fox News No. 2, both ahead of any of the three broadcast networks.16
These comparisons also, of course, reflect the vast differences in supply. Cable is on 24 hours a day. Network news is on, even if one were to include prime time magazines, at most three or four hours a day.
And, again, increasingly the nightly network newscasts are on at times when people are not home. People's commutes have been getting longer, making it harder for them to be home when network newscasts are on, whether in the evening or morning. This is why in local news the early-morning programming, before 7 a.m., is the only growth area.
One has to ask about the level of commitment the networks really have to a signature evening newscast or to covering news in a systematic way. If one wanted to structurally limit a television program's chances of success, airing it at 6:30 p.m. or even 7 p.m. would be a fair way of doing it, and that is when the network news is on. In many places in the West, moreover, such as San Francisco, the evening newscasts go on in an even less enviable time slot, as early, for some networks, as 5:30 p.m., when the number of television sets in use is much smaller.
Whatever the reasons, the disadvantages tonightly news have added up, and the audience is clearly shrinking. From 1993 to 2002, the percentage of Americans in the Pew surveys who said they regularly got their news from the networks steadily declined, from 58 to just 32 percent.17