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Cable Technology Feature Article

October 15, 2014

Cable News: Digital is the Lifeline as Viewership Declines

By Tara Seals, TMCnet Contributor

Cable news would appear to be at a crossroads: with viewership (and ad revenue) steadily declining, where is the future business model for the 24-hour news cycle? It would appear that digital offers perhaps the best way forward amid a shifting sea of changing consumption habits.

According to the Pew (News - Alert) Research Center, traditional cable news viewership, unsurprisingly, peaked around the 2008 presidential election. But over the past year (January-September 2014 compared with the same period in 2013), CNN’s prime-time audience has declined by a full quarter, to a median viewership of 495,000, according to Nielsen Media Research data. That’s mostly due to evening viewership falling off: but even during the day, it’s down 4 percent over 2013 levels.

As a matter of interest, research firm SNL Kagan projects that CNN will experience a dip in advertising revenue this year of about 5 percent to $302 million. And it shows: CNN Worldwide recently announced an 8.5 percent reduction in its workforce.

And its rivals aren’t faring much better: MSNBC’s primetime viewership has declined by 4 percent over 2013, and by 17 percent during the day. Conservative bastion FOX News Channel grew slightly in primetime (2 percent), but has lost 5 percent of its daytime audience.

“The total prime-time audience for the three channels combined, hovering at around 2.8 million viewers, amounts to just a fraction of the more than 20 million people who tune in to one of the three commercial news broadcasts airing on NBC, ABC and CBS each night,” said Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project.

That said, CNN’s digital operation is booming: It had 42 million unique monthly visitors in 2013, according to Nielsen — two-thirds greater than that of FOX News (25 million).

“Digital may not yet be where the money is at; CNN Worldwide has said at one point that it accounts for about 10 percent of its total revenue,” Holcomb said. “But the company is showing that it’s keeping pace with where the audience is going.”

Embracing digital will be critical as demographics shift. Research by media analyst Michael Nathanson of Moffett Nathanson Research has found that the median age of a broadcast or cable television viewer during the 2013-2014 TV season was 44.4 years old, a 6 percent increase in age from four years earlier. And, TV viewers are aging faster than the U.S. population, which has a median age of 37.2, according to the U.S. Census. That’s a figure that increased 1.9 percent over a decade, meaning that TV audiences aged 5 percent faster than the average American.

“As news habits and technology adoption continue to become more digital, cable news outlets are thinking beyond the main screen,” Holcomb said.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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