June 8, 1998

Internet News Takes Off

Section 2: Reading, Watching and Listening to the News


The public’s news interests help explain the relative resilience of these news sources. Crime, health and community — the focus of much of today’s local news — are the subjects that most interest Americans. The public expresses considerably less interest in news about political figures and events in Washington and international affairs — topics which often lead network newscasts.

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of the public follow local and community news closely most of the time, whether or not something important or interesting is happening; just 38% follow local news only when something important is happening. The public’s approach to national and international news differs. Only 52% of Americans follow national news most of the time, and just 34% pay attention to international news most of the time.

These differences have clear implications for network news viewership. More than half of those who follow both national and international news most of the time watch the nightly network news regularly. But only 28% of Americans fall into this category. A 39% plurality of the public follows national and international news only when something important or interesting is happening. Among that group, only 26% watch the nightly network news regularly.

A similar, though less dramatic, pattern can be seen among CNN viewers. Fully 33% of those who follow national and international news most of the time watch CNN regularly. Just 16% of those who follow this kind of news only when something is happening watch CNN regularly.

Negative Trend for Nightly Network News

Center surveys trace the steady decline of the nightly network news audience over the past five years. In May 1993, six-in-ten Americans watched the nightly network news on either CBS, ABC or NBC regularly. Today, only 38% describe themselves as regular viewers. Today’s core audience is predominantly older and female. Only 22% of men under age 30 watch the nightly network news regularly, compared to 55% of women over age 50.

The network news audience is not limited to the nightly newscast, however. Other network offerings enjoy substantial audiences. Television news magazines — such as 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline NBC — are viewed by 37% of the public regularly. There is a fair bit of overlap between the audiences of the nightly network news and the news magazines. Fully 58% of regular nightly news viewers also watch the television news magazines.

The magazine format has gained strength among young viewers over the last two years. In 1996, 19% of those under age 30 watched a news magazine show regularly; today, 26% do. The magazines gained the most ground among young men — the percentage of men under age 30 who watch these types of programs has doubled since 1996, from 11% to 22%. Much like the general public, regular television magazine viewers are most interested in news about health, crime and their own communities.

The Morning Shows

The network morning shows — the Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning — are also popular. Fully 23% of Americans watch one or more of these shows regularly, another 19% watch sometimes. The morning audience is decidedly female: 48% of women watch one of the three morning shows regularly or sometimes, compared to 35% of men. These shows are most popular with women over age 50. As is the case with the network news magazines, there is considerable overlap between the morning and the nightly news audiences: 58% of regular morning viewers are also regular viewers of the nightly network news.

Morning television viewers hold different news values than the general public. They like news personalities who present the news in a caring way — 68% consider this important, compared to 57% of the public. In addition, these viewers place more importance on the emotional and entertainment aspects of the news, and they value news that fits easily into their daily schedules and contains information that is helpful in their day-to-day lives.

Cable Climbing

This poll suggests that cable news networks and specialty cable channels are now major components of the American public’s daily news diet. Four-in-ten Americans regularly view one of the major cable news networks — CNN, CNBC, MSNBC or the FOX News Channel. When the percent who also watch the Weather Channel or ESPN Sports News is factored in, the cable news audience swells to 60%, slightly higher than the 57% of Americans who regularly view network news offerings — the nightly news, news magazines and the morning shows.

CNN, the nation’s dominant cable news network, has seen its audience diminish since the early 1990s. While viewership spikes with big news events, the 23% who now say they watch the network regularly is significantly lower than the high of 35% measured in May 1993.

Unlike the nightly network news audience, CNN’s core audience is predominantly male, well-educated and affluent. Three-in-ten college graduates watch CNN regularly, compared to 20% of those without a college degree. Similarly, 33% of Americans with an annual family income over $75,000 are regular viewers, compared to 20% of those who make less than $50,000 a year.

The public now has several choices for round-the-clock cable news, and the survey indicates that many Americans are watching the newer cable news outlets. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) watch at least one of three alternative cable news networks regularly: 12% watch the business-oriented CNBC; 8% watch MSNBC, the Microsoft-NBC collaboration. In addition, 17% of survey respondents reported watching the FOX News Channel regularly. National ratings and subscription statistics suggest that this figure is exaggerated, perhaps because respondents confuse FOX News Channel with other FOX television offerings.1

Furthermore, there is considerable overlap among the audiences of the various cable news networks. Regular CNBC and MSNBC viewers are more likely than average Americans to be regular CNN viewers (51% vs. 23%). Viewers of MSNBC are better than four times more likely than average to watch CNBC and similarly, viewers of CNBC are four times more likely than average to watch MSNBC.

CNBC’s audience is older, while MSNBC appeals equally to those over and under age 50. Interestingly, MSNBC, which is linked to a fully interactive Internet site, is no more popular among online users than among those who do not use a computer.

Print Audiences Hold Steady

While the television news landscape has been transformed in recent years, the audience for print media is remarkably stable. Americans continue to rely heavily on their daily paper as a primary source of news. Today, 68% read a daily newspaper regularly and 47% report having read a paper yesterday. Both numbers are not dramatically different from 1996. Similarly, 5% of the public reads news magazines regularly, a figure unchanged since the early 1990s.

The newspaper audience may not have declined at the same rate as that of television news, but it is much less broad based. Only 28% of those under age 30 report reading a newspaper yesterday; this compares with 69% of seniors — creating a far more dramatic generation gap than exists for television news consumption. The daily newspaper also holds considerably less appeal for non-whites, those without a college degree and those making less than $30,000 a year.

The survey found a substantial number of Americans reading the nationally distributed USA Today: 28% say they read this paper regularly. The Wall Street Journal is read regularly by 16% of the public; 10% read The New York Times.

Public Broadcasting Offerings

Demographically, regular NewsHour viewers and NPR listeners stand out for their level of education. Approximately one-third of them have a college degree, compared to 22% of the public.

The NPR audience grew substantially during the 1990s. In January 1990, 5% of Americans listened to NPR regularly. Today that number is 15%, with another 17% saying they sometimes tune in. About half of the public (49%) never listens to NPR, down significantly from 78% in 1990. Unlike many other mainstream news sources, NPR attracts as many young people as it does older ones: 15% of those under age 30 listen to NPR regularly; 13% of those over 65 do.

Four percent of the American public watches The NewsHour regularly, another 14% watch sometimes. NewsHour viewers are heavy consumers of network news, CNN, CNBC and MSNBC; 36% listen to NPR regularly. They are much more interested than the general public in news about political figures and events in Washington and in international affairs. More than half (51%) say they follow Washington political news very closely, compared to 19% of the public; 40% pay very close attention to international news vs. 16% of the public. Nonetheless, they also share the mass public’s interest in community, health and crime news.

Weather and Sports — American Passions

The Weather Channel and ESPN — specialty cable news outlets — are very popular. Fully 33% of the public watches the Weather Channel regularly, another 27% watch sometimes. Older Americans tune in at a much greater rate than do young people: 47% of those age 65 and older watch regularly, compared with only 23% of those under 30. The Weather Channel is also more popular with Americans who have not attended college. Southerners tune in most often (42% regularly), those in the West tune in least often (18% regularly).

The core audience for ESPN Sports News is largely young and male. Overall, 20% of Americans tune in regularly: 69% of those regular viewers are men. Among men under age 30, 39% watch regularly. Non-whites watch regularly at a rate significantly higher than whites: 31% vs. 18% respectively.

Attention to these specialty cable outlets is not a substitute for local television news. Regular viewers of the Weather Channel and ESPN Sports Center are also loyal viewers of their local television news. Fully 71% of Weather Channel viewers watch the local news regularly, as do 67% of regular ESPN viewers. This compares with 64% of the general public.

C-SPAN and Court TV

Two other specialized cable offerings, C-SPAN and Court TV, attract comparatively smaller audiences. Some 4% of Americans watch C-SPAN regularly, another 19% tune in sometimes. The C-SPAN audience is largely male, older and affluent. C-SPAN viewers are active consumers of a host of other news sources. Fully 76% watch CNN regularly (compared to 23% of the public), 38% watch CNBC and 17% watch The NewsHour. In addition, C-SPAN viewers are hearty consumers of radio news. Nearly one-third listen to NPR and 21% listen to political talk radio regularly, compared to 15% and 13% of the general public, respectively.

Court TV appeals to a different segment of the population altogether. The network’s regular viewers are largely older, female, less affluent and less well-educated — 68% have no education beyond high school, compared to 50% of the general public. Court TV also appeals to non-whites: Fully 33% of its regular viewers are black.

Tabloid and Tell-All TV

The audiences for entertainment, tabloid and tell-all formats remain substantial: 14% of Americans watch shows such as Hard Copy or Inside Edition regularly (a total of 47% watch at least sometimes); 13% watch tell-all talk shows such as Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones regularly (28% at least sometimes); and 8% watch Entertainment Tonight (35% at least sometimes). More than one-third (37%) read People Magazine at least sometimes; 15% read a tabloid newspaper such as the National Enquirer, The Sun or The Star regularly or sometimes.

Tell-all television popularity has grown since 1996, when 8% watched regularly. Regular viewers are young (41% are under 30) and less well-educated (73% never attended college). Non-whites are significantly more likely to watch regularly than are whites (34% vs. 9%). The audience for shows such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition is similar demographically, though not as young. Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap between these two audiences: 35% of regular tell-all television viewers also watch the tabloid shows regularly.

Political Talk Radio

Radio news remains a staple for many Americans. The audience decline for network news and daily newspapers since the early 1990s is not apparent for this medium. If anything, radio news has risen somewhat. In the current survey, 49% of respondents reported listening to news on the radio yesterday, up from 44% in the Spring of 1996.

The audience for political talk radio, however, has diminished significantly in recent years. In April 1993, 23% of Americans listened to radio shows that invite listeners to call in to discuss current events, public issues and politics regularly; another 32% listened sometimes. In the current poll, only 13% listen regularly, 22% listen sometimes. The biggest falloff can be seen among non-whites, political Independents and men over age 50. Today, Republicans are almost twice as likely as Democrats to listen to political talk radio regularly. Men between ages 30 and 49 are talk radio’s most loyal listeners.

Just as the audience for political talk radio has declined somewhat, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has seen his popularity fade since 1994. In July 1994, 26% of the public listened to Limbaugh’s radio show regularly or sometimes, today 16% listen at least sometimes. The Limbaugh audience is slightly larger than the audience for Howard Stern’s radio show (14% listen regularly or sometimes). Some 12% of the public listens to Dr. Laura Schlesinger at least sometimes.

More than a quarter of the public listens to religious radio shows such as Focus on the Family at least sometimes (10% regularly, 16% sometimes). These shows have particular appeal for women and blacks — 67% of those who listen regularly are women; 32% are African American. Not surprisingly, white Evangelical Christians listen to religious radio at a much higher rate than the general public: 51% listen at least sometimes.

  1. Nationwide the FOX News Channel has approximately 31.5 million subscribers; MSNBC has 39 million and CNBC has 64 million.