Expert Opinion on the (Lack of) Watchers of Cable News

by Joshua Tucker on December 4, 2009 · 5 comments

in Media

Reading John’s post earlier this week flagging Ezra Klein’s post on what Politico fears, I was particularly struck by Klein’s claim that pretty much no one watches cable news, which in turn was based on this post at Mother Jones (and also commented upon by Jonathan Bernstein here). In response, I posed the following question to my former colleague Markus Prior, the author of Post-Broadcast Democracy

When people say that cable news audiences are only in the hundreds of thousands, does that mean the same hundred of thousands? Or are lots of people watching infrequently?

Markus’s response was as follows:

We don’t know for sure how the average audiences add up over the course of a day or a week because cume audiences are rarely reported by Nielsen. But it’s a good guess that concentration is pretty heavy.

Either way, it is a mistake to argue that cable news viewing is only a minor fraction of overall news consumption:

It is widely believed that Americans as a whole also watch less news than in the past. This belief is based on a flawed interpretation of the available data. Central to the misinterpretation is the impression that a 38 rating for the three evening network news programs—the highest-ever combined yearly average—is more news than an average 1.4 rating for the three major cable networks (CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC)—their 2004 combined average. It is not. The 38 rating means that on a typical weekday in 1980, 38 percent of all U.S. households watched one of the three evening network newscasts—thirty minutes of news (including commercial breaks). For the average household, this amounts to 11.4 minutes (30 minutes ´ .38) of news per weekday. A 1.4 rating for the three cable networks means that 1.4 percent of all U.S. households watched one of the three cable networks during the average minute of the day. For the average household, this amounts to 20.2 minutes (60 minutes ´ 24 hours ´ .014) of news per day. (Prior, Post-Broadcast Democracy, p. 151)

Even if cable news accounts for more news consumption than the three network newscasts, this doesn’t mean that cable reaches many “persuadable voters.” Glenn Beck’s audience was conservative before he became the lasted cable sensation. Rachel Maddow preaches to viewers who were liberal before she got her show

No need to argue, then, that cable news isn’t good at what it’s doing—making money by entertaining a few million partisans every day. But it’s not changing American politics as we know it.

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