CNN’s prime-time ratings — those hours between 7 and 11 p.m. that command premium advertising rates — have fallen sharply. CNN, reports The New York Times and MSNBC, now trails three of its principal competitors, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and its in-house competitor, HLN (formerly Headline News).
CNN’s ratings in the prime 25-54 demographic fell 77 percent in the last 12 months. Finger-pointers and blame-gamers abound. The Times‘ Bill Carter calls the last-place performance of CNN’s “signature host” Anderson Cooper “alarming” at the 10 p.m. slot. Charles Warner of mediacurmudgeon.com writes at HuffPo that Fox and MSNBC may have outbid CNN for favorable channel positions. Others, like Bill Gorman of tvbythenumbers.com, thinks CNN lost its substantial advantage gained from its political coverage from 2006 to 2008.
But seasoned TV pundits are missing a significant point lost in the blizzard of analyses of the cable news rating wars.
The Times‘ Carter offers a forest of numbers to paint a distressing picture for CNN (which, of course, paints an equally depressing financial picture). His Oct. 26 story provided ratings and leaders for each prime-time hour. (By the way, his story provided no source for the numbers. Mr. Warner at HuffPo says Mr. Carter received the numbers from MSNBC executives perhaps eager to stick it to the Chicken Noodle Network.) But here’s the nutshell for the evening hours:
For the month, CNN averaged 202,000 viewers, ages 25 to 54. That was far behind the dominant leader, Fox, which averaged 689,000. But it also trailed MSNBC which had 250,000 viewers in that group and HLN, which had 221,000 viewers.
For those without a calculator handy, that’s about 1.3 million viewers between 25 and 54 years old for all prime-time cable news programs. According to Neilsen, the rating service, America has about 115 million TV households. Those households have an average of 2.83 television sets.
So what the hell is everyone else watching? Or doing? Let’s subtract about 30 million people over 70 who just don’t watch TV at late hours. And another 20 million under 5 years old for the same reason. If only 1.3 million are watching the “journalism” that supposedly maintains an adversarial relationship with government (hah!), then what are about 62 million people doing between 7 and 11 p.m.?
Let’s cut another 25 million who would be watching prime-time network or cable entertainment programming. (Even “Law & Order” reruns — which draw up to 10 million viewers — dwarf CNN’s viewership.) That’s still 37 million people not watching the prime-time cable “news” programming.
No, I don’t know why. But I’ll hazard a guess or two.
The 1.3 million who do watch cable news prime-time programs have firmly held (and not always rationally adopted) political points of view. They need their daily ideological dose of Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. But the 62 million who don’t watch the cable prime-time offerings may have simply concluded that it’s just not news, and that the opinionated content simply has too little value.
Frankly, the cable news networks’ collective decision to bloviate instead of inform between 7 and 11 p.m. has hurt all of them. Fox may outdraw CNN by a factor of three, but given that tens of millions of Americans do not watch Fox and its opinion programming should be little comfort to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.
After all, many millions of those tens of millions of people who do not watch Fox or CNN or MSNBC or HLN are between 25 and 54 years old. And they have money to spend.
Cable news networks should re-examine what they do between 7 and 11 p.m. if they wish to be more profitable — and survive.