This is one of the first times in years that TV journalists and executives won’t need a box of Kleenex nearby when they read the Pew Research Center’s encyclopedic and authoritative annual State Of The News Media Report, which will be released today. Broadcast networks, cable news networks, and local TV stations all showed signs of improvement in 2011 as people became riveted by stories about Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, the shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Britain’s royal wedding, and the tsunami in Japan, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The audience for the major networks’ newscasts increased for the first time since 2001. Cable news viewing also was up, a relief after a huge slide in 2010. And local news gained ground, ending a five-year decline. To be sure, traditional news providers across the board still haven’t figured out how to make money in digital media. And last year they “lost more ground to rivals in the technology industry,” Pew says. The audience for online news sources grew 17.2% while revenues were up 23.0%, Still, researchers say that “news is becoming a more important and pervasive part of people’s lives” — and that “could prove a saving factor for the future of journalism.” Here are some of the highlights for TV news:
Broadcast networks: Collectively, the evening newscasts for ABC, CBS, and NBC attracted an average of 22.5M people a night — up 4.5% vs 2010. One possible reason for the uptick: The nightly news shows are more differentiated than they’ve been in years. CBS notably tacked toward hard news after Scott Pelley replaced Katie Couric; for example, the network paid more attention to the economy than ABC and NBC did, and devoted far less time than ABC did to the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor. The number of stories with overseas datelines was up 9% at all of the newscasts, including the PBS NewsHour. The increase in nightly viewing may be cold comfort for those who have seen ratings fall 54.5% since 1980. Still, Pew notes, the lowest rated network newscast (the CBS Evening News) on average attracted more than twice the audience of the highest rated cable news show (Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor). Morning newscast viewing also grew, averaging 13.1M, up 5.4%. It’s the first time that’s grown in seven years.
Pew estimates that ABC News revenues rose 2.5% to about $650M. CBS News was probably up 1% to $430M. NBC News also likely saw revenues rise 1% to $860M from its broadcast shows — and to more than $2B when its cable operations including CNBC and MSNBC are thrown in.
Cable: The story here is more complicated. About 3.3M people tuned into CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC on an average night, up about 1%. But after their double-digit fall in 2010, the slight gain in a news-filled year makes Pew uncertain that cable news “has fully halted its ratings slide.” The changes in prime time also were lopsided, unlike for the broadcasters where all three improved. CNN’s prime time results were +16% (to 654,500), MSNBC was +3% (773,000), Fox News was -3% (1.9M) — and HLN plummeted 11% (385,500). During the day the three major cable news nets lured about 2M, +2%. MSNBC was +20% to (385,500), CNN was +5% (474,000), Fox was -2% (1.1M) — and HLN was flat (250,000). Pew says that CNN benefited from its strategy to sharpen its identity as a substantial and independent source of global news. MSNBC successfully established itself as the specialist in political news. As for the decline at Fox, Pew says that’s probably due to the efforts by its chief, Roger Ailes, to oust Glenn Beck and tone down the tough talk following the Giffords shooting. “Ailes said he wanted Fox hosts to scale back the rhetoric, not out of any ideological softening, but for the pragmatic reasons that it would not be good politics, or good business, to let his channel be defined by the fringe,” Pew says.
The audience figures are just part of the story for cable: Revenues for Fox News last year probably were +9.4% to $1.5B, with CNN and HLN +7.3% to $1.3B, and MSNBC +8.1% to $409.3M, Pew says citing data from SNL Kagan.
Local TV: “After years of decline, local television news showed new signs of life in 2011,” Pew says. The audience for morning newscasts was +1.4%, while late evening news was +3%. Part of the increase may be attributable to a 14% jump in late night news in February — a sweeps month when Nielsen collects detailed info about local viewing — as people looked for the latest headlines about the uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Still, the figures may underestimate the jump in local news viewing. Lots of stations added news to their schedules: some use it to beef up their pre-dawn programming, and in mid-afternoon to fill the hole left by the end of Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated talk show. News may have regained some of its financial luster as stations use it as an attraction for their Web sites, and as they forge partnerships with other local TV outlets, newspapers, and radio stations. A recent survey found that 59% of stations collaborate with others to produce news.
It’s hard to put a revenue figure on local newscasts. Pew notes that station ad sales were -6.7% in 2011 to $18.1B — but they’re also collecting new revenue from pay TV retransmission consent payments. Still, the research group says, “After years of losing audience and revenue, local television news appears to have settled into a kind of equilibrium.” Although stations made less last year than they did in 2010, “the decline was about what might be expected in a non-election year.”