Suffering News Burnout? The Rest of America Is, Too
By JIM RUTENBERG
as the nation's television audience burned out on serious news?
American soldiers are dying in Iraq almost daily, questions are continuing to swirl around the Bush administration's case for the March invasion and United States Marines are poised off the coast of Liberia. At home, decisions by the Supreme Court prompted national debates on affirmative action and gay rights, a basketball star stands accused of sexual assault and the California governorship suddenly hangs in the balance. And yet, television news viewers are tuning out.
The total evening news audience on the broadcast networks has been lower this summer than it was during the summer of 2001, when the pressing stories of the day were shark attacks and Chandra A. Levy.
"CBS Evening News" has been particularly hard hit; in late June, CBS, which is owned by Viacom Inc., had one of its least-watched weeks for its nightly news report in at least a decade, and perhaps in its history, according to Nielsen Media Research. The audience of ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, is down nearly 600,000 from last year. Among the broadcasters, only NBC, which is a unit of the General Electric Company, has bucked the tune-out trend this summer.
The collective cable news audience, meanwhile, is slightly smaller so far this summer than it was this time last year, despite gains for the Fox News Channel, which is owned by the News Corporation.
"People have been through two years of very heavy-duty, stressful news, from Sept. 11 through the war with Iraq," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather." "I think there's probably just a little bit of a break-taking going on across the spectrum."
Steve Sternberg, senior vice president for audience research at Magna Global USA in New York, an advertising buying agency, takes a similar view. "Considering how much news there was with the Iraq war," he said, "people are probably just taking a breath and saying, `O.K., that's enough news for a while.' "
Summer TV viewing, of course, is always lighter than other times of year, as people find other things to do. And, because TV audience analysis remains an inexact science, with no hard data on what motivates people in their TV-watching decisions, no one can say for certain why news ratings are lower this summer than in recent years.
But the overall diminished state of the television news ratings has come as a surprise to some executives and advertising executives — especially since it comes after impressive audience figures, at least for cable news, during the main military action in Iraq back in the spring
According to Nielsen Media Research, about 24.1 million people watched the three evening newscasts each night, on average, in June and July, compared with 25.2 million during the two-month period last year and 24.3 million during June and July 2001.
As for cable, CNN's daily audience during June and July was, on average, 413,000 people, down from 502,000 last summer, according to Nielsen Media Research, and much smaller than its audience of 2.5 million during the thick of the war. The daily average audience for MSNBC, which is owned by the Microsoft Corporation and G.E., fell from 254,000 last summer to 197,000 this one — which is down from 1.3 million during the war.
And while the average daily audience at Fox News grew to 753,000, compared with 612,000 during last summer's two-month period, the audience was nowhere the average of 3.2 million people who watched Fox News each evening during the thick of the Iraq fighting.
Some news executives said that many viewers may see this summer as nothing more than the end of the big Iraq story that they so eagerly watched in the spring. Others said this summer's more serious-seeming news events were, in fact, less compelling than those of last summer: the disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her Utah home; the abduction and killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in California; the rescue of nine miners from a Pennsylvania coal shaft; the fatal shooting of two people at the Los Angeles International Airport and the killing of the gunman by an El Al security guard.
Among the top news stories this summer, "none of these have the broad appeal and emotional tug that a Samantha Runnion, Elizabeth Smart, the miner rescue or the airport shootings had at that time," said Jack Wakshlag, head of research for the Turner Broadcasting System, which manages CNN for their parent company, AOL Time Warner Inc.
CNN's highest-rated day during June and July last year, for example, was July 27, when an average audience of about 1 million people tuned in to learn about the rescue of the coal miners, according to Mr. Wakshlag's Nielsen Media Research data.
This summer, CNN's most-watched day during the comparable two-month period was July 22, when an average audience of about 650,000 tuned in for news about the United States military's killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein.
Mr. Wakshlag said the audience for the miners was probably higher because the nation had been following their plight over the course of several days. The successful attack on the Hussein brothers, "obviously was not a large-scale, unfolding, dramatic event," he said. "It was pretty much straightforward coverage of the fact that they were caught, which is by and large something you learn quickly and you don't have to stay and watch a whole bunch of stuff all day and get glued to the set."
Though he took heart that CNN's ratings were up from the summer of 2001, Mr. Wakshlag acknowledged, "I'm not sure that national import and national interest always correspond."
There are two anomalies in the ratings that dispel the theory that perhaps the American public is turning a blind eye to the world: the audience increases for "NBC Nightly News" and the Fox News Channel, the respective leaders of their fields.
According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which is a newsletter that tracks the network evening newscasts, NBC has given the heaviest coverage of Iraq of the three newscasts in recent weeks. Fox News Channel has not exactly shied away from Iraq, either.
Executives at Fox News Channel and NBC said they concluded that it was better to devote more time where more context can be given to Iraq news rather than less. If boiled down to mere headlines, they said, that news can seem relentlessly negative and may turn off viewers.
"Other networks have come on the air every day and they give you a countdown or count-up of the bad things that have happened — whether it's military deaths or civilian deaths," said Bill Shine, the executive producer of Fox News Channel. "That is important, and it's news America should know. But, there is some progress going on in that country."
CNN and MSNBC dispute that Fox News is devoting more time to Iraq than they are. And competitors of NBC News denied they were being overly negative, saying that if NBC News is covering Iraq any more than they are, it is only by a marginal degree.
"I think that reality can get to viewers at times," said Mr. Murphy at CBS. "But I don't think our coverage is negative or relentlessly negative. We tell people what we have. Some days it's negative, some days it's not."
It remains unclear whether the big celebrity-driven news narratives of the moment — the Kobe Bryant sexual-assault case and Arnold Schwarzenegger's announced gubernatorial run in California — will change the current ratings equation.
On cable news, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC saw spikes in their average daily audiences on Wednesday — the day Mr. Bryant had his first court appearance and Mr. Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy. But the gains were not huge.
Reliable data on the evening newscasts for last Wednesday were unavailable.
Either way, Mr. Murphy said, he did not expect the ratings funk to continue for very long. "People come to watch the news when they need the news," he said, adding, "and they will need it again."
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