Cable news sees writing on the wall

As audiences shrink, channels must justify their expense, which is getting harder as media become more diffuse.

By Jonathan Berr May 25, 2012 12:55PM
Image: Businessman watching television (© Image Source/Corbis)News Corp. (NWSA), Time Warner (TWX) and Comcast (CMCSA), which own the major cable news channels, are throwing a huge party that not enough people want to attend.

The audiences for Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC are waning. In fact, the ratings are downright depressing. As Jack Shafer of Reuters noted, CNN recently attracted its smallest prime-time audience since September 1991, with the fewest viewers in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic since July 2008. 

The audience at MSNBC declined last year after the abrupt departure of Keith Olbermann. Viewership has rebounded since, and MSNBC has maintained its lead over CNN in prime time. Rachel Maddow, an Olbermann protégé, "brought in the highest ratings on her network's prime-time lineup in both demo and total viewers -- and fared better than the prime-time lineups at CNN and HLN" in demo and total viewers, according to Mediaite. Nonetheless, MSNBC is facing the same pressures as its rivals.

According to Shafer, the first signs that the cable news audience had peaked appeared in a March 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, which showed that the combined median viewership for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC had plunged 16% that year to 3.2 million. That was the first drop in median audience for the channels since 2006.

The problems facing the cable news business are not new. Viewers flock to the channels when there is huge news such as the Casey Anthony trial and tune out in droves when the show is over. Efforts to attract more viewers in prime time have come up short.

Take Piers Morgan. The former tabloid news editor was brought in by CNN last year because the ratings for his predecessor, Larry King, had plunged for years. Executives at the Time Warner channel surely were expecting better.

"Last week, 'Piers Morgan Tonight' averaged 429,000 total viewers," according to the Los Angeles Times.  "How bad is that? Well, Morgan's show premiered in January 2011 with 2.1 million. And his predecessor, Larry King, was averaging 657,000 in late 2010 -- a level that was considered unacceptable at the time."

The well-spoken Brit, though, is a ratings juggernaut compared with "Anderson Cooper 360," which averages a "catastrophic" 95,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, according to the newspaper. It's no wonder that Time Warner brass are reportedly demanding that CNN improve its performance. What's ironic is that CNN's just-the-facts approach is precisely what the public says it wants. The reality is that they prefer the opinionated broadcasts of Fox and MSNBC.
Fox remains both the ratings and money leader in the cable news wars. The Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that the Rupert Murdoch channel earned $869.2 million in 2011,  up 12% from 2010. CNN and sister network HLN earned $595.8 million, while MSNBC earned $186.6 million, both gains of about 11%.

News Corp. reportedly spent more than $700 million on gathering news at Fox News in 2011, ahead of its rivals. These figures will likely increase this year because of the Olympics and the presidential election. But times are changing.

The cable news channels are going to have to justify their expense, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the media world becomes more diffuse.

 Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed companies.

May 25, 2012 2:00PM

Why doesn't the article cite how Fox News picks up the viewers that CNN and MSNBC loses?

May 25, 2012 3:07PM
Headline should have said,"Cable news,EXCEPT FOX.............................................hahahahahahaha
May 25, 2012 3:15PM
That's what happens when the newscasters are so biased and liberal that they can't  just tell the news, they have to add a few view points of there own and leave out facts.  We want to hear  the truth!  I bet Fox is not losing viewers!
May 25, 2012 6:56PM
When that idiot producer from NBC News was caught playing an edited version of Zimmerman's phone call, that just confirmed my belief that certain cable news channels cannot be believed.  NBC is the "poster-child" for them.
May 25, 2012 2:59PM
Fox news is and always will be the leader in  cable news.
May 25, 2012 3:28PM
most news these days is so depressing and who needs more depressing things in their life? i'd rather spend my time doing other things or if i'm gonna watch tv i'm going to watch something funny. i get enough news on the msn homepage to keep me up-to-date with the horrible things going on in the world today.

1.  We want our news sources to tell us the news, not tell us what to think.

2.  We want our news panelist to discuss things intelligently, professionally, and in an adult manner.  No more of this talking heads trying to talk over each other ****.

3.  Regardless of our own political agenda, NEWS should only report what's actually happening, not try and opinionate against/for any political/social agenda.


Every time I try and watch one of the big 3, CNN, MSNBC, or Fox, they without fail will have talking heads espousing their preferred political position, or decrying the opposing  position, and again without fail if more than one person is on it will devolve into a who can talk over whom the loudest, who can be witties...  It's damn annoying and it insults our intelligence, and it certainly is NOTHING like what we group up with in news.


Anyone working in news media today should be EMBARRASSED!

May 26, 2012 12:12PM
It's all Ted Turners fault ---  and when the news became entertainment -  it became all about ratings --   times are changing but the facts are still hard to find
May 25, 2012 6:02PM

Like one of the earlier posters stated, cable news biggest problem is that there is only so much news in a day and it gets rehashed ad nauseum. Also, most of the pundits only invite people who are going to agree with them and if the guest doesn't, he or she is shouted down, talked over and/or ridiculed.  It might make for "good" TV but it is rude and turns me off.  Of all the pundits on cable news channels, I prefer to watch Rachel Maddow because she is willing to listen to viewpoints other than her own and not shout down or talk over her guests all the time. 

May 25, 2012 5:51PM
don you are an **** both fox and msnbc are bias to their auidence that is why certin people listen to one or the other. next your going to tell me that keith obberman was honest and non bias who had all the facts.
May 26, 2012 5:11PM
May 29, 2012 11:03AM
Mr. Robert Minneman your statement is so on the money. Thank you for that. I share those same views regardless of what party affliation one has. Tell it straight and with correct facts. You'll definitely would bring the days of true journalisn back. 
May 27, 2012 7:21PM
It's hard to watch the cable news now-a-days  because they go over the same thing all day long and try and hype everything, if they went back to reporting on news and not trying to sensationalize everything or try and tell us who is going to win the election or who is guilty, etc it would be a lot easier to watch.  It's just not right to have the news go through a trial before the facts are in, or at any time for that matter.  Let the system(s) work the way they were intended.
May 25, 2012 5:30PM
Fox news is nothing more than bias Republican campaign headquaters and I have found that many times their reporting was not based on the facts but the speakers bias OPINION.
May 27, 2012 1:33AM
It's nice to watch hardcore opinion and analysis.  The News / information is available everywhere.  Why are we demanding that TV media provide unbiased reporting?  Go somewhere else you idiots.

Who wants to look at ugly people vomiting facts I could just read online?
May 25, 2012 3:44PM
All except Murdoch's FAUX news, whose viewers are, well, older and uh, let's just say less technology savvy than MSNBC viewers.

It's just easier to not fuss with that darn channel changer and keep being fed Murdoch's tainted swill read by cross-eyed FAUX blondes.

May 25, 2012 5:25PM
Rachel always tells the truth and tells it like it is while the other stations just say anything and everything to campaign for their favorite political party. I enjoy MSNBC because I know they always have the facts to back up what they report on.
May 25, 2012 7:05PM
Good mainstream news is awesome. However. Media like FOX (that is funded by the RNC) and does nothing but LIE and CRY gets VERY BORING VERY FAST. Even though I was a hard core Republican back a while, what they do will make you VERY sick.
May 25, 2012 3:06PM
you notice not a lib around this story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!hahahahahahahahaha
May 25, 2012 5:25PM
when FAUX News  oxymoron    is  taken   off the air the world will be a better place!!!
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