Cable News Viewership Declines Double Digits in 2010

Bill O'Reilly 2008

CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel lost viewers last year, the first time all three have seen dropoffs in a dozen years, according to a new study.

After years of audience growth, cable news may have hit a wall.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual State of the News Media report, cable news viewership for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News fell substantially in 2010 -- 13.7 percent in aggregate for a sharper decline than any other sector. Broadcast news, which has experienced declining viewership for years, was down another 3.4 percent in 2010.

And the cable news networks' declines were sharpest in primetime, where median viewership plummeted 16 percent to an average of 3.2 million, while daytime tune-in was down 12 percent.

And for the first time in the dozen years since PEJ has been monitoring the cable news networks, every channel was down. CNN -- with its well-publicized primetime woes -- was down the most in 2010, dropping 37% to 564,000 viewers. But Fox News, the No. 1 cable news network, declined 11 percent. And MSNBC -- which finished 2010 ahead of CNN in primetime in news' target demographic of 25-54-year-olds and total viewers -- was down 5 percent.

"What [the audience erosion] suggests is that we may have reached a peak in cable news viewership," says Amy S. Mitchell, Deputy Director for the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It's not that people are not watching cable, they're just not turning to news as much."

Cable news, like its broadcast competitors, has lost viewers to burgeoning online news choices. In fact, online was the only medium that experienced audience growth in 2010, up 17 percent year-to-year. In a December survey, 41 percent of Americans cited the Internet as the place where they got "most of their news about national and international issues," up 17 percent from a year earlier, according to the report.

Of course, myriad online choices have fractionalized the market overall. But the differentiator for cable news competing with instant and mobile news was to offer primetime with a point of view. CNN has stubbornly stuck with news and bipartisan talk in primetime, to the detriment of their ratings, the conventional wisdom goes. But the general audience erosion in primetime, where the cable news networks reap the lion's share of their ad revenue, suggests there may also be a finite audience for the partisan offerings, no matter what side of the political aisle they speaking from.

"For the last several years, the personality programming was continuing to draw more and more audience and the question is whether that is leveling off as well," Mitchell said. "There just may be some limitation to the population that's going to come to those personality driven shows day in and day out."

But it's probably a little too early to panic. The PEJ study also found that revenue for almost every sector of the news media bounced back after a dismal year in 2009, when the financial crisis was still roiling the industry.

Local television was up the most at 17 percent, followed by online, which jumped 13.9 percent year-to-year. Overall, cable television revenue was up 8.4 percent and broadcast television grew 6.6 percent.

According to the study, "revenues for each of the cable news channels were projected to increase in 2010 a total of 10.7 percent across the three networks: Fox grew 17 percent to $1.5 billion, CNN and HLN 5 percent to $1.2 billion, and MSNBC was up 7 percent to $383 million."

Additionally, CNBC, which charges premium boasts affluent viewers command premium CPM (cost per thousand) rates, raked in an estimated $723 million in 2010, an increase of 9 percent year to year and nearly double what MSNBC pulled in.