A recent Washington Post article highlights the decline in cable news audiences, reporting that since 2009, the median daily audience for the top three cable news channels—CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News—has fallen 19 percent. The decline during prime-time hours is even sharper, at 26 percent. From 2013 to 2014, prime-time median viewership dropped eight percent.
Reasons Cable is Falling Behind
There’s no question the trend toward non-television sources of news, including social media and online sources, has affected TV news viewership in general.
However, according to a Pew Research Center State of the Media report from earlier this year, local television viewership increased slightly overall in 2014, with a two percent gain in morning news and a three percent gain in early evening news viewership.
Local news also benefited from a rise in ad revenue, with its share reaching $19.7 billion last year. Meanwhile network news also experienced growth in 2014, with a two percent increase in average viewership over 2013.
So Why is Cable Struggling While Local and Network News Continue to Grow?
While consumers are generally getting more news from social media and other online sources, local and network have continued to gain, if at a more leisurely pace than ten years ago. Why aren’t local and network newscasts suffering as much from the rise of digital media?
It isn’t just because viewers are watching more news on their phones than on TV screens. The Washington Post article points out that cable’s problem may be a side effect of the digital revolution. Viewers are watching more than just news online. They’re streaming everything from soap operas to movies to sitcoms, and as a result some are canceling their cable subscriptions.
A consumer who browses the day’s news stories on her phone while riding the bus home from work might still turn on the TV to watch news when she arrives home, but if she canceled her cable last month, she’s going to be watching national and local news stories on a local affiliate.
Cable News Tries to Attract and Retain Viewers
Some of the programming cable networks produce to keep viewers interested may have the opposite effect. The Washington Post article details how CNN’s Jeff Zucker planned to attract and retain viewers by focusing on a single story or issue for hours, sometimes even days. While this certainly provides an in-depth look at the topic, it can also bore today’s viewer, who might read five news articles about five different topics on his phone while CNN is still on the same subject.
It is possible that local stations can gain a stronger foothold over cable by spending slightly more time on some of the bigger stories, and not just in sweeps month. We’ve all seen how stations run longer pieces during those times, and television is a fast-paced medium; no one wants to bore viewers by repeating what is often limited information about a current piece of news.
Certainly, you wouldn’t want your local TV station to spend the entire A block dissecting the finer points of the city’s new parking ordinance. But running slightly longer, well-reported packages about a few of the biggest news items can help your station gain and maintain viewers who have turned away from cable but still enjoy more involved reporting on a story.
Local stations can also use podcasts to provide a broader view on a topic. This has the advantage of giving viewers the option of spending more time on a story that interests them; with cable news, you have the option of watching whatever that network wants to talk about for an hour, whether it interests you or not.
News Fatigue: Another Problem for Cable?
Spending so much time on one story may be another reason for the downfall of cable. As any reporter who has ever struggled to make a story sound different during the five, six and ten o’clock newscasts with no additional information knows, big stories often have no new developments for hours, sometimes days. Local stations love to lead with “updates” about stories reported earlier or “new developments,” but sometimes there really aren’t any.
Cable networks have the same problem, except that they have to make repeat the same information over and over for hours instead of in a thirty-second package. Usually, they handle this by bringing on a panel of experts to discuss the situation. If they’re lucky, the experts get into a big argument the network can call “controversial” when posting the video to its website. If they’re not lucky, the experts simply talk in professional jargon or go off on tangents about things that are neither interesting nor relevant.
Another Opportunity for Local Television?
Many viewers have grown tired of dueling political experts and the repetition of a small number of facts on cable news. Some people simply don’t have time in their busy schedules to watch CNN pick apart the latest disaster for six hours straight. This may be another reason viewers spend more time watching local and national news: the most pertinent information is explained briefly before the newscast moves on to its next story.
Local stations have the opportunity to provide more detailed coverage of certain stories in a way that’s more relevant to viewers than cable news’ coverage by focusing on the local angle of national stories.
Local and National News in One Place
Fox News may be able to talk about Donald Trump’s latest viral comment for hours on end, but only a local station can give viewers an in-depth look at community issues, conduct person-on-the-street interviews about national topics, then provide a national news program.
Local TV stations can use this advantage by occasionally running sweeps-length, in-depth packages about local issues outside of sweeps month. Affiliates also have more opportunities to interact with younger viewers on social media.