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Cable TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism with Andrew Tyndall

The convenience of 24-hour cable TV news, offering the latest breaking headlines at any time of the day or night, represents an enormous structural advantage for cable over network television. Cable has become the television news medium of choice. The network most cited as the No. 1 source for news remains CNN, preferred over the broadcast networks and even its cable rivals.

Yet all is not so rosy. Cable television’s audiences are not as large or as constant as its boosters depict. The growth of its core audience reached a peak around the time of the September 11 attacks and has stalled since. Inside cable newsrooms, Fox still seems to be trying to build staff (perhaps because, unlike CNN and MSNBC, it is still gaining audience) but, overall, the age of innovation and investment in new kinds of programs or people that characterized cable news is no more.

Increasingly, anchors or even control room managers – but not correspondents -are the primary figures in cable. After CNN merged with AOL, it began to shed people and to imitate Fox’s less costly live-chat model. MSNBC remains somewhat more of a showcase for NBC correspondents, but this may be helping NBC News more than the cable sibling.

One of the most deeply held notions that journalists are taught, that they are telling stories, does not strictly apply to cable news. Instead, viewers often see newsgathering in the raw: live interviewing illustrated by unedited videotape, extemporaneous reporting with little time to write or consult sources. The traditional staple of television news, the produced, written, edited and taped package, has been sidelined. What was once the raw ingredient of journalism is now the product.

Hour after hour, across all parts of the day, cable television news features constant repetition, a narrow news agenda, an obsession with headlines, scanty sourcing and little autonomy for correspondents in the field.

Many ideas about cable’s audience may also defy conventional wisdom. Contrary to press reports, the cable audience appears to have flattened since 2002. It is not growing. The medium kept none of the viewers it gained during the 2003 war in Iraq, and now that Fox and MSNBC are carried on most systems, continued growth may be harder to come by. As of early 2004, roughly 2.2 million viewers typically watched the three cable news networks every day in prime time, about the same number as in early 2002.

Fox, while the leader in ratings, also may not dominate as much as people imagine. Of the three channels, Fox is still gaining in ratings, while CNN and MSNBC are losing. At any given moment, Fox’s audience is 60 percent higher than CNN’s. Still, polling data continue to suggest that more people cite CNN as a news source overall. The problem in the numbers for CNN is that people are not all watching at the same time.

Financially, the story is clearer. When it comes to revenue and profit, CNN, not Fox, remains the leader, by a large margin. Fox is beginning to narrow that gap, but there is a long way to go. The leadership in cable, in other words, is a more complex picture than it might seem.

On the other hand, MSNBC is clearly third in both audience and economics.

One question is what will happen down the road when television and the Internet begin to merge with the expansion of broadband technology. At that point, cable, broadcast and the Web will more closely begin to compete for the same audience. The convenience of getting television news on demand will become less of an advantage for cable alone. Will differences in content play a bigger role in determining audience preference? Even now, when cable networks and broadcast news go head-to-head – during the first day or two of a breaking news event, or even during the morning news hour – the traditional networks remain the preferred medium.

The technology is not yet there. Television news is still something viewers watch mainly in a passive way. Yet when the technology changes and the media converge, the advantage may depend more on which media and which outlet have the strongest news gathering and storytelling abilities.