Why Cable Is Not Where People Get Their News Anymore

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

As the number of devices that connect to the Internet have grown over the years, traditional forms of communication have adapted, too. The workplace was completely transformed by email, newspapers are struggling because of digital media, and social media is changing how people shop and keep up with their family and friends. Few industries are left out of the changes and the latest victim is the cable news cycle. Revenues might be up slightly, but viewership is declining significantly.

During election night in November 2014, 14 million Dish subscribers went without CNN’s election coverage. Dish and Turner Broadcasting, CNN’s owner, were negotiating a carrier deal that would allow Dish to show the programming to its viewers. But for election night, it was a no-go. To Dish chairman Charlie Ergen, it also wasn’t a big deal.

“You can imagine: CNN down on election night would have been a disaster 15 or 20 years ago. Now there are plenty of other places for people to get news. In fact a lot of people get news not from TV but from their devices,” Ergen said during a conference call in early November. Ergan then dug the knife a little deeper with a more pointed jab: “Twenty years ago, CNN was a must-have channel, but it’s not a top 10 network anymore … unless they find the plane, the Malaysian plane,” referencing the cable channel’s non-stop coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared in March 2014.

The cutting words were likely a negotiation tactic as Dish and Turner Broadcasting came to a deal later that month that restored CNN’s broadcast to Dish subscribers. But Ergen’s words illuminated a trend that is backed up by data — with all the sources to get news today, not as many people are tuning in to cable news. In an analysis of Nielsen data by the Pew Research Center, combined viewership of CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel over a median 24-hour period decreased by 7% in 2014 compared to the year before. The three channels bring in 1.8 million viewers combined, with Fox carrying a bulk of them at 1.1 million. MSNBC fared the worst of the three, with a 14% decline to a median of 334,000 viewers.

In prime time slots, the channels fared even worse. Combined viewership is down 8% to 2.8 million viewers. Fox only lost 1% of viewers during the premiere time slots for advertising dollars, but CNN and MSNBC performed much worse. CNN dropped 9% to 495,000 viewers, and MSNBC dropped 8% to 568,000 viewers. Despite CNN and MSNBC in particular expected to have a harder time attracting eyeballs to their channels — key for driving revenue from advertisers — cash flow did increase for the combined three channels by about 4% in 2014, according to estimates made by SNL Kagan. Fox carried most of that growth, projected to rise 6% to a total of $2.04 billion. CNN was expected to increase 3% to $1.13 billion, but MSNBC lost an estimated 1% of revenue, down to $501 million.

Eventually, advertisers will want to take their money to channels or other platforms that offer the most viewers. But even if cable news is declining, it might not mean that everyone jumps ship right away. A study released a year ago by the American Press Institute shows that people now turn to a variety of outlets for their news content, not just one. Even if cable news viewers are dwindling, it doesn’t necessarily mean that another platform is now dominant. Instead, the audience is spread over a larger array of news options.

Why is cable viewership dropping?

The study revealed that cable news channels don’t do well drawing in viewers for topics like health, arts, sports, or science. But they are still the go-to sources for topics related to politics, international news, social issues, and business or economy news. Though social media definitely has taken some users away as people rely on Twitter or Facebook for their news updates, this particular study states that social media doesn’t necessarily steal from other sources. “At the same time that 4 in 10 now use social media, more than 80 percent of Americans say they also got news in the last week by going directly to a news organization in some manner—and that was consistent across generations," it says.

The study does imply why cable viewership might be down, however. Though people get their information from a variety of sources, those are dependent upon the different type of news story. When breaking news happens, people often find out about it from the TV, either from local, network, or cable sources. But if it’s an ongoing or developing story, they often leave the TV and follow the rest of it on the Internet, often through social media or online updates to articles — not pundits sitting around a desk in a New York office.

Revenues are relatively stagnant for the news channels, which in this case doesn’t spell disaster but is likely a cause for concern. If viewership numbers for cable news channels continue to decline, advertisers will likely start to believe that they should spread out their spending in greater ways, just as the sources themselves are diversifying. In that sense, the reports for the next few years will be very telling in whether advertisers have decided to stay with their audiences on cable news channels, or if they’ve decided that a drop in people watching the programming should also mean a decline in spending. Either way, the trend from Pew suggests that unless something seismic happens, cable news viewership will continue its downward trajectory.

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