June 11, 2000

Internet Sapping Broadcast News Audience

Section I: The Changing Media Landscape

The revolution in communications technology is clearly changing the way Americans live, and it has created a highly competitive environment for those who provide news and information to the public. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) now use a computer on at least an occasional basis, up from 61% in 1998 and 58% in 1996. Almost as many have a computer in their home — 59%, up from 43% in 1998 and 36% in 1995.

The number of Americans who go online has increased at an even greater rate, more than twice as many people now go online to access the Internet or send and receive email as did just four years ago (54% vs. 21% in 1996).

In addition to computers and the Internet, a large majority of the public has access to a seemingly unlimited number of television outlets through cable TV and satellite dishes. Fully eight-in-ten (79%) Americans have either cable or a satellite dish (5% have both). The numbers for cable have remained relatively stable in recent years, while the percentage of those owning a dish has tripled since 1995.

More than half of Americans (53%) now have a cell phone, up from 24% in 1995. Men, women and people of all races are equally likely to use a cell phone. Older Americans do lag behind, however. Roughly one-quarter of the public has a pager. As many as 16% have a DVD player and 5% own a Palm Pilot.

As these new technologies have taken hold, providing many new avenues for obtaining news and information, the overall media landscape has been drastically altered. As a result, new patterns of news consumption are emerging and the core audiences for traditional news outlets are steadily diminishing.

While newspaper and magazine readership has fallen off moderately in recent years, the impact of the new media environment on television news has been more noticeable. Only 55% of Americans now report having watched the news or a news program on television “yesterday.” This is down from 59% in 1998 and 1996, and from a high of 74% as recently as 1994. In addition, Americans are spending less time watching television news these days. In 1994, 37% of the public reported spending at least one hour watching the news on TV “yesterday.” That number has fallen steadily over time. In 1996, 29% said they had spent an hour or more watching TV news, it was 28% in 1998, and today the number stands at 23%.

The falloff in TV news consumption has taken place primarily among the broadcast network news outlets. The percentage of Americans regularly watching the network evening news has fallen precipitously in the last two years. Viewership of network news magazines, such as 20/20 and Dateline, as well as the morning shows has fallen off too, though less dramatically. As a result, the cumulative network news audience has shrunk significantly in recent years.

Over this same period of time, cable news consumption has remained virtually flat. The cable news audience, encompassing CNN and some of the newer all-news cable networks, amounts to 40% of the population. This number is unchanged from 1998. When specialty cable channels, such as the Weather Channel and ESPN are taken into account, the cable news audience swells to 61%, basically unchanged from 1998.

Fragmented Audiences

In this age of hybrid news audiences, when many Americans regularly watch the broadcast networks and cable, there is a segment of the population — one-in-four — which regularly watches the networks but not cable news. The counterpart to this group is a smaller audience — 14% of the public — which regularly watches cable news but not broadcast networks. Another 26% fall into a third group, which regularly watches both the broadcast networks and cable news channels.

These three groups are vastly different in terms of demographic characteristics, behavior and attitudes. And they illustrate the challenge which the broadcast networks face today in trying to attract a large, mainstream audience.

The exclusively broadcast audience is largely female and is older than the population at large. The primary news interests of this group are health, crime and community news. The cable-only group is younger than average and dominated by men. The primary news interests for these cable loyalists are sports, crime, and science and technology. The hybrid group is a mix of men and women, but like the broadcast sector, it is considerably older than the public at large.

While both the broadcast group and the hybrid group are extremely loyal television news viewers, the exclusively cable group watches TV news much less frequently. Only 54% report having watched TV news yesterday, compared to 71% of broadcast loyalists and 74% of those who watch both broadcast and cable. On the other hand, the cable group is almost twice as likely as their broadcast counterparts to go to the Internet for news: 32% vs. 19%, respectively, get news online at least three days a week. The cable-only group has different attitudes about the news as well. Only 44% say they enjoy keeping up with the news a lot, vs. 51% of the broadcast-only group and fully 70% of those who watch broadcast and cable.

Just Half Watch Evening News

Americans are increasingly less inclined to tune into the nightly network news broadcasts for their daily dose of news. And for the first time since 1987, the percentage of Americans who report watching a nightly network news program does not reach majority status.

Just 50% now say they tune into the nightly broadcasts anchored by Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather, compared with 59% in 1998, 65% in 1995 and 71% in 1987. The percentage who say they regularly watch the network news has fallen eight points in just the last two years — from 38% to 30%. Moreover, the regular audience has been cut in half since May 1993.

Audiences for other network TV offerings have also declined in recent years. Roughly three-in-ten Americans (31%) now regularly watch news magazine shows such as 20/20 and Dateline — down from 37% in 1998. The audience for the three network morning shows has also fallen, though slightly, over the past two years.

TV’s Generation Gap

The rise of the Internet as a news source is only one of several difficult challenges confronting broadcast news organizations. Not only have the audiences for rival cable news outlets remained more stable, those audiences are younger than the viewers of network news offerings.

Only 17% of those under age 30 watch the nightly network news on a regular basis, compared to 50% of those age 65 and older. The same pattern exists with local TV news. News magazine shows such as 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline, as well as the network morning shows, also draw in a disproportionate number of older viewers. In addition, these programs hold much more appeal for women than men. Among the most loyal group of viewers for these shows are women over the age of 50. The generation gap so apparent for the network and local TV news is less dramatic for CNN and virtually nonexistent for the newer all-news cable channels, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.

CNN’s audience, while smaller than it had been in the mid-1990s, is largely unchanged from 1998. Today 21% of Americans regularly watch CNN, vs. 23% in 1998. Even more Americans watch at least one of the newer all-news cable channels. Fully three-in-ten say they watch at least one of these channels — either CNBC (13%), MSNBC (11%), or the Fox News Cable Channel (17%) — on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, business news enthusiasts are among the most loyal of CNBC’s viewers: nearly one-third of those who follow business news very closely tune in regularly.

In addition, large proportions of Americans tune into specialty cable news channels, such as the Weather Channel and ESPN. Fully 32% of the public are Weather Channel regulars this year, virtually unchanged from 1998 (33%). Sports news on ESPN attracts about one-quarter of the public on a regular basis (23%). Among men under age 30, the number swells to 46%. The audience for C-SPAN’s live coverage of Congress is much smaller; C-SPAN is viewed regularly by 4% of the public and by one-in-ten of those who are very interested in political news. Republicans and Democrats watch the public affairs network at nearly equal rates.

Documentaries on cable channels such as the History Channel or the Discovery Channel are extremely popular with the public. Fully 37% say they regularly watch these shows. Men dominate this cable venue: 43% watch documentaries regularly vs. 31% of women.

Local News Down, Public Broadcasting Stable

While local TV news remains more popular than the networks, there has been a steady decline in the local audience in recent years as well. Today 56% of Americans watch local TV news regularly, down from 64% in 1998, 72% in 1995 and 77% in 1993.

And like their national counterparts, local broadcast news outlets are facing competition from cable. Local all-news cable channels have become quite popular: Fully 29% regularly watch local cable news, another 23% tune in at least sometimes.

The audience for public radio and television has remained constant in recent years. As was the case in 1998, 15% of Americans say they listen to National Public Radio regularly, while another 17% listen occasionally. NPR’s audience is disproportionately affluent and well-educated. On public television, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer draws 5% of the public on a regular basis; another 12% sometimes watch.

Univision and other Spanish-speaking TV outlets are staples for Hispanic-Americans. Fully one-quarter of the Hispanics interviewed as part of this survey (all English-speaking) watch Spanish TV regularly. Another 25% tune in at least sometimes.

Graying Newspaper Readers

Newspaper readership, which declined in the 1980s and early 1990s, has leveled off in recent years. While the percentage of Americans saying they read a daily newspaper regularly is down slightly this year from 1998 (63% vs. 68%), the percent saying they read a newspaper yesterday is virtually unchanged (46% now vs. 48% in 1998).

But the generation gap in newspaper readership remains wide. Only 29% of those under age 30 report having read a newspaper yesterday. This compares with 63% of those age 65 and older. College graduates and those with family incomes in excess of $50,000 are among the most likely to read a newspaper.

The weekly news magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, have lost some ground in recent years. Today, 12% regularly read this type of magazine, compared to 15% in 1996 and 24% in 1993. Young people are actually as likely as older Americans to read weekly news magazines. Roughly half (46%) of those under age 30 read a weekly news magazine at least sometimes, compared with 37% of those age 65 and older.

Readership of business magazines such as Fortune and Forbes, as well as literary magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly has remained relatively stable in recent years.

Court Shows Popular

“Real life” dramas have strong followings. Nearly one-in-five Americans watch TV shows such as Cops or America’s Most Wanted. These shows are most popular among those who never attended college and those with family incomes under $30,000. These same demographic groups are among the more loyal viewers of courtroom shows such as Judge Judy and Divorce Court. Overall, 12% of Americans watch these court shows regularly.

Among daytime TV talk shows, programs like those hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell are somewhat more popular than daytime “tell-all” shows hosted by Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer. Roughly one-third of the public (31%) watches shows like Winfrey’s at least sometimes, while 19% watch Springer and company. The audience for O’Donnell and Winfrey is largely dominated by women. Women of all ages tune into these shows, but they hold little appeal for men of any age.

The tell-all shows, on the other hand, attract both men and women and draw disproportionately from young viewers. Both daytime formats attract viewers with less education and lower-than-average incomes.