What’s With The Ratings Declines In Cable News?

By Alex Weprin Comment

2012 is shaping up to be a weird year in the Nielsen ratings. Nickelodeon, Fox, The CW and a number of other channels are crying foul over what they say is clearly incorrect ratings data coming from Nielsen (not surprisingly, they are complaining about ratings declines).

Despite it being an election year, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC were all down significantly from 2011, with FNC seeing its lowest ratings since 2008 and CNN since at least 1991.

What’s the deal? Here are a few thoughts.

People Are Sick Of Politics For a While: Fox News saw its lowest primetime numbers since July, 2008, right before the big election. Weird, right? Well, in both cases, with the GOP and Democratic nominations secured, cable news shifted to general election horse race coverage. Horse race coverage has limited mass appeal, particularly after a long, drawn-out primary process, and viewers–even regular viewers–seemed inclined to tune it out. It happened in 2008 across all of the cablers, and it appears to be happening again now. Even Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent says that politics has been “pretty boring to people,” this year, according to B&C. Your average American probably doesn’t care about what the latest poll numbers mean, and won’t be making an effort to tune in and find out. Sorry.

May Sweeps and a Lack of News: May 2011 was a BIG news month. Bin Laden, Joplin, Libya, Casey Anthony. Lots of news happened that month. May 2012 had some interesting news as well, but nothing of the scope or scale of any of those mentioned. May also brings May sweeps, when the broadcasters pull out their big guns to try and draw viewers in primetime. Both of those things likely factored into the slow month. While the partisan programming on MSNBC and Fox News is more resistant to a slow news month than CNN’s programming is, all of the networks get a big boost when big news happens. In May 2012, there just wasn’t that major news story that gets your average (read: non-cable news) viewer to tune in over “Dancing With the Stars.”

It’s Nielsen’s Fault!: This isn’t news to anyone who works in TV, but the networks don’t like Nielsen. Fox News doesn’t like Nielsen, CNN doesn’t like Nielsen, USA doesn’t like Nielsen, CBS doesn’t like Nielsen, no one likes Nielsen. Some might defend Nielsen, but they don’t like Nielsen. In the five-plus years that I have been a media reporter, I have not met a single TV executive who believed that Nielsen’s numbers were truly accurate.

The problems are many. Nielsen doesn’t count out-of-home viewing, where cable news executives suspect much of their viewing takes place. Nielsen’s sample of viewers is constantly being criticized for being inaccurate or incomplete (particularly when it comes to accounting for wealthier viewers, who are an advertising goldmine). Nielsen doesn’t measure cross-platform viewing yet, though they have been promising a solution for years. Some executives have serious doubts about the accuracy of Nielsen’s numbers, but are worried about what more accurate numbers might show.

That said, complaints about Nielsen aren’t new, so it is hard to blame the company for the May performance without more information. Plus, many cable channels, including Syfy and Style Network, saw explosive ratings growth in May.

In short, Nielsen has serious, serious issues, but it is still the measuring system by which TV networks set advertising rates. Until that changes, their numbers are gospel. And until there is solid evidence that the ratings problem is on Nielsen’s end, it is hard to blame them for the decline.

What do you think is causing the issue? Let us know in the comments.