July 26, 2012

As the Ratings War Intensifies, What Sets Morning News Apart?

Network Morning News Network Evening News
Presidential Election 22 15
Trayvon Shooting 5 2
John Edwards 4 1
War in Afghanistan 3 4
Economy 3 8
Health Care Debate 2 3
Middle East Unrest 2 5
Whitney Houston Dies 2 0.3
Iran 2 2
U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2 2
European Economy 0.4 1
Educaton 0.4 1

150% -How much more coverage the Trayvon Martin case received on morning news than evening news during the first half of 2012.

On July 9th, Savannah Guthrie made her eagerly awaited debut as the co-anchor of NBC’s Today Show-a move that followed weeks of speculation that network executives would replace Ann Curry, at least in part due to the show’s declining ratings. (This week, CBS also announced that Norah O’Donnell would replace Erica Hill as co-host of its morning show.)

In the past year, as ABC’s Good Morning America has chipped away at Today’s ratings lead and even pulled ahead in certain weeks, the network battle for morning audiences has been fierce. In an effort to generate buzz in early April, for example, Today had former Alaska governor Sarah Palin play a co-hosting role at the same time that former Today anchor Katie Couric filled in on Good Morning America.

Aside from the greater focus on personalities, one of the significant differences between the morning and evening network broadcasts is the news agenda. A PEJ analysis of coverage during the first half of 2012 found that morning shows emphasized politics, scandal and crime more than their evening counterparts, while the nightly newscasts focused more on the economy and overseas events than the morning shows.

One crime story, the unfolding saga surrounding the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, ranked as the No. 2 subject (5% of the newshole) on the morning network shows from Jan. 1-June 30, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. PEJ examines the first half hour of the morning shows, which tends to focus on harder news. Conversely, it accounted for 2% of the newshole on the evening newscasts, ranking as the No. 7 story.

Two top 10 morning stories involved scandals and celebrity. The trial of John Edwards, the former presidential candidate who was acquitted on one count of using campaign funds to cover up an extramarital affair, was the third biggest story on morning shows (4%). And the sudden death of singing star Whitney Houston was No. 9, at 2%. Neither of those stories made the top 10 list on the evening newscasts.

In both the morning and evening newscasts, the 2012 presidential campaign was the top story. But it was significantly bigger (22% of the newshole studied) in the morning than in the nightly shows (15%).

On the other hand, the evening newscasts devoted 8% of the airtime studied to covering their No. 2 story, the troubled U.S. economy. That story attracted only about half the attention (3%) in the morning, where it ranked as the No. 5 topic. The third and fourth biggest stories in the evening newscasts, the Mideast turmoil and the war in Afghanistan, combined to account for 9% of the newshole. On the morning shows, they accounted for a combined 5% of the airtime studied.

By Monica Anderson