Pew State of the News Media 2013: Cable News Evolving, But Is ‘Ceiling’ In Sight?

By Alex Weprin Comment

2012 was a strange year for cable news. It was an election year, with a slew of political stories, and no shortage of international and domestic stories as well. While viewership as a whole was up, there were also signs that trouble may be looming in the distance for the medium.

Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 report shines a light on the challenges and strengths of cable news, and notes a couple of things that have changed.

First: the content of cable news is evolving. Pew looked at cable news content from 2007 to 2012, and found that as a while there is less live event coverage now than there was then, with interviews stepping in to replace them. Interviews may be “live,” but they cost far less than sending a team, into the field. Further, in every hour of every day, opinion has overtaken reporting in terms of content, either in pundit form or the host sharing their own views.

Second: the Pew researchers argue that cable news may be hitting a ceiling in terms of viewership. While media viewership was up slightly (+3% in prime, +2% in total day), cumulative viewership is down significantly. While Cume is not easily monetized by cable news channels it does paint a picture of how many people overall watch cable news in a given year. Having Cume go down in an election year is troubling. More troubling: the viewership of cable news is very, very old across all of the networks.

It would be one thing if cable news simply maintained itself as a niche medium with capped but stable ratings. But demographic factors could further weaken viewership in the years to come. Regular viewers of the evening talk shows, which tend to draw the highest ratings across cable news, are older, according to Pew Research data. The 50 and older audience makes up 66% of Fox’s Hannity, 64% of Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, 59% of MSNBC’s Hardball (close to 30% are 65 or over), and 57% of its Rachel Maddow Show. These figures have inched up in recent years, while those for younger audiences have declined. Instead, the young 18-to-24-year-olds are turning to digital options: As many as 28%, according to Pew Research Center data, say digital news platforms are their sole source for news.

With regards to the “big three” channels:

CNN is still trying to find its voice, and figuring out how to drive viewership to the channel when there isn’t that big story that drives regular people to the TV set.

MSNBC continues to move towards a completely progressive lineup, with fewer and fewer straight news programs. It is also seeing the most growth of any cable channel, however.

Fox News remains the stalwart of cable news, and has increased its taped packages, even as its live event coverage declines more dramatically than its competition.

Pew also goes into the potential threat of digital disruptors to cable news, like HuffPost Live and TheBlaze. You can read more here.