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Network TV Audience


When it comes to audiences of network news, the headlines are generally grim. Only one or two programs are increasing their audiences. For most, flat ratings are a victory. The networks are showing no real signs of innovation or of creating genuinely new kinds of news programming that might win new audiences. The lone exception is morning television news, which saw an upturn in 2003.

Some points:

The Nightly Newscasts

The problems confronting the network news divisions are most acute, and for fans of traditional news, most alarming, in the falling fortunes of nightly news.

Television audiences are counted numerous ways. The most familiar is ratings, which count the number of all television sets in the United States tuned to a given program. Share is the percentage of just those sets in use at a given time tuned in to a program. Viewership is ratings converted into the number of people actually estimated to be watching, taking account of the fact that often more than one person is watching a given set.

In November 1980, the year CNN was launched, 75 percent of television sets in use were tuned to one of the three nightly network newscasts each night during the dinner hour. In 2003, it was a 40 percent share.

Of all television homes, 20.6 percent were tuned to the nightly news in November 2003, a drop of 44 percent from 1980, when the networks’ nightly news broadcasts had a combined 37 rating.

Yet, much of this decline did not come with the advent of cable, between 1980 and 1990. The drop in audience has been even steeper in the last 10 years, as the number of cable outlets has proliferated, than in the previous 13 years.4 A decade ago (November 1993), 40.7 million Americans watched the nightly newscasts. By November 2003, that number was 29.3 million, a decline of 28 percent in 10 years.5

Evening News Viewership, All Networks
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

The decline from the historic peak of nightly news audience is even steeper. In 1969, when viewing choices were admittedly limited, the three network newscasts were watched in 50 percent of all American homes and 85 percent of the homes tuned to television at the time that the newscasts were shown.6 Since then, ratings have fallen by 59 percent. Share has fallen 53 percent.

Evening News Ratings
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
Evening News Share
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

What is driving the flight away from nightly news? How much is it a loss of viewers to cable, or a migration of people to the Internet? Is there a decline in interest in news generally? Do people dislike the changing content of the newscasts? Or how much is the increasingly disadvantageous time slot of nightly news to blame or the shift to more two-income families and longer commutes?

Certainly some of the fall-off seems an inevitable result of technology creating more alternatives. In the 1970s many viewers had only three or four choices on their broadcast television dial. Cable arrived in 1980, expanding the range of television choices to 20, then 30, then 40, or in the case of some cable or satellite systems, 200 or 300 channels. The number of broadcast stations also grew, with the development of UHF stations, and the Fox network (see Cable TV Audience).

Research also suggests that the Internet, including Web sites associated with the networks themselves, has drawn audience more from television than other media, but the extent of that is difficult to assess. A 2000 survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that those who regularly went online reported watching less network television news than two years earlier.7 Fewer watched television news overall, and those who did watched less of it. Meanwhile, viewing among those who did not go online was unchanged. It is unclear, however, to what extent this trend has continued in the last three years.

Local television news, too, now has access to many of the same pictures and stories that were once the exclusive domain of the networks; in recent years local television news viewership has also declined somewhat (see Local News Audience). In 1980, the three commercial networks monopolized national and international news, releasing their footage on these stories only after they had been broadcast on the networks, and even then only in limited amounts. CNN changed that by offering to share its footage with local stations in exchange for their material. In response, the networks began to increase feeds to affiliates. In the process, they inevitably hurt their own newscasts, making them stand out less.

Tastes also have changed. More people brought up on infotainment may prefer lighter fare and may get more of it elsewhere. The branding that comes with specialization (“CNN, the Most Trusted Name in News” or “Fox News, We Report, You Decide”) may also be luring viewers away. In an age of such niche fragmentation, a single one-size-fits-all newscast may not appeal to as broad an audience.

Nightly newscasts are also hurt by their fixed time slots compared with the ubiquity and convenience of cable. In the 1970s, the nightly news was generally on later than it is now in most markets – 7 p.m. – and many more Americans were home, in single-income families, and the working fathers had notably shorter commutes. Today, the evening newscasts are often on much earlier, as early as 5 or 5:30 p.m. in some West Coast markets. On the West Coast, the evening news programs have the added problem of being tape-delayed. Viewers know the news they are watching is three hours old. Cable and local news has the advantage of being more up to date.

Add to that the fact that the so-called dinner hour simply offers less of an audience than it once did. Fewer people are home, particularly working people, as commuting times have lengthened,8 and many parents are seeing their children for the first time since the early morning. The evening news time slot is probably the most disadvantageous on television.

Changes in the content of network evening newscasts may also be a factor. As the evening newscasts have lost viewers, they have cut back on their newsgathering. This has led to a decline in the number of bureaus and beats, and a shrinkage in the number of minutes of news produced in each program (see Newsroom Investment). The evening newscasts have also tried changing their tone, particularly in the mid-1990s, doing more lifestyle coverage and less traditional news about national and international affairs (see Content).

The changes in content and the shift toward seeing news divisions as profit centers have had other implications. The news divisions see themselves as having a different responsibility and persona in American life than they once did. The networks once felt obliged to do authoritative documentaries on major issues of the day – “NBC White Papers” or “CBS Reports,” for instance – which burnished the networks’ image as serious public institutions. Today, the network documentary has been replaced in prime time by the news magazine program, shows that are much closer to a form of nonfiction reality entertainment than an exercise in social responsibility.

To some extent, all these changes – the new character of existing programs, the growing importance of the morning shows compared to the evening newscasts, the elimination of public obligation programs and their substitutions with infotainment news programming – contribute to the public’s no longer seeing network news divisions as authorities to turn to each day, or even on special occasions, for information and insight.

Most likely, all these factors are at play, interacting with each other.

One element here, the impact of time slot, is sometimes overlooked and deserves more comment. While the nightly newscasts are on a downward path in terms of viewers, what may be even more remarkable, given the increasing disadvantages of the time slot, is how many people still watch. Nearly 30 million viewers each night make the network news programs the three most-watched and influential news outlets in America, even if they have become something of a familiar punching bag for television writers and perhaps even a subject of doubt for their owners.9

Twice as many people watch these programs as are watching the morning shows at any given time. More than three times as many people watch each of these programs as read any of the nation’s biggest newspapers.

Yet these viewers tend to be older and thereby not so attractive to television advertisers, which are highly concerned with attracting young audiences. Money, rather than solely demand, has relegated what some might argue is the best of network news to a subordinate position and has made the problems of the evening newscasts something it is not clear the networks are willing fundamentally to address. Many in network news privately worry about how long the networks want to produce signature evening newscasts at all.10

One comparison that seems relevant to understanding this is network versus local viewership. For many years of network news decline, local news programming seemed to hold its audience, in part, as indicated above, because satellite technology had led to their offering national and international news before the networks did. But today local news is also no longer holding its audience.

Since the late 1990s, local news and the networks appear to be losing audience at roughly the same rate. Nielsen data gathered by the financial research firm BIA show that, on average, early evening local news programs, which usually are broadcast right before or right after the network evening news, have suffered a combined market share decline from a 50 share in 1997 to 41 in 2003.11 (See Local TV Audience.) This tracks almost exactly with the decline in network evening news share, which has gone from a 49 share in 1997 to 40 in 2003. In any kind of television programming, news or entertainment, the size of the audience of the lead-in program is a dominant factor in determining the size of the audience of the program that follows.

But network news has not suffered as much audience loss as other network programming. Between 1993 and 2001, for instance, according to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau, the three networks saw their share of prime time audience drop by 42 percent. Nightly news during that time dropped 23 percent.12

The Race Among the Networks

Which of the three networks is on top in the evening news?

This was once a vital question. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the evening newscasts contributed big profits to the networks. For even longer, being No. 1 in nightly news was a key to a network’s brand, adding prestige. It gave the news divisions not only bragging rights, but better access to newsmakers as well.

For much of that time, the history of network news was characterized by several distinct eras. In the early 1960s, the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC dominated. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Walter Cronkite on CBS was No. 1, and that newscast continued to lead for some time in the 1980s when Dan Rather took over. NBC News was emerging as No. 1 until General Electric took over the network in the mid-1980s and made moves that caused the network to temporarily stumble. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peter Jennings’ ABC “World News Tonight” dominated. And in the late 1990s, a resurgent NBC saw Tom Brokaw on top, although this owed more to the other networks losing viewers than NBC gaining.13

Evening News Viewership
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

Throughout 2003, NBC had a narrow edge in ratings, followed closely by ABC, then, farther back, by CBS.14

To understand the race, consider the fortunes of each network over the last decade. Using numbers from the critical November sweeps month, the CBS “Evening News” with Dan Rather has seen the biggest decline. Its viewership has fallen 37 percent in the last decade (from 13.1 million viewers in 1993 to 8.3 million in 2003), and even more since 1980. “World News Tonight’s” viewership on ABC has fallen 29 percent (from 14.3 million viewers in 1993 to 10.1 million in 2003). NBC’s “Nightly News” has fallen the least, but still a substantial 18 percent (from 13.3 million viewers in 1993 to 10.9 million in 2003), according to Nielsen data. These Nielsen numbers actually show a near 2 percentage-point gain for NBC in the last year.15 NBC’s “Nightly News” took over the No. 1 spot in 1997, and has remained there most weeks since.

Why has NBC fared better generally over the last seven years? A detailed analysis of one program over another is not the focus of this report. But some mention of possible factors can show how complicated the mix of variables can be. NBC has the advantage of having a cable network and one of the biggest news sites online with, which was launched in 1996. Strategically, each of the brands was supposed to reinforce each other. Loyalists to would naturally turn to its siblings when they wanted broadcast (NBC) or cable (MSNBC) or even financial news (CNBC). NBC has almost one minute more of news content above the three networks’ average, which, given channel switching during commercials, is probably also significant. In addition, the popularity of the “Today Show” in the morning may be another factor, building loyalty to NBC News as a brand, which spills over into viewers watching the network’s nightly news as well. According to at least one survey by TV Guide, Tom Brokaw is the most trusted anchor on television, either network or cable, although it is not known whether this is a result of Brokaw’s audience size or the cause of it.16 Another important factor was that during much of this period, NBC had the most successful prime time lineup of the three networks.

It must be stressed, however, that NBC took the No. 1 spot more because of ABC losses than NBC gains. In 1994, when NBC was third in the ratings, it had 11 percent more viewers than it does today, when it is No. 1.

The Age Factor

The ratings trends for nightly newscasts are a problem by themselves, but the age issue makes the long-term prospects even more complicated. Not only are their audiences shrinking, but they are also getting older. The commercials on a network evening newscast tell something about the audience. They are often a string of pharmaceutical ads aimed at older Americans.

The median age of network evening news viewers in 2003 (from 59.5 for ABC to 61.2 for CBS)17 is around 10 years older than network programming as a whole (which was 45.7 to 52.2 in 2002). For the American population as a whole, the median age is 35.3.18 This makes the nightly news a less attractive sell to advertisers, preoccupied with youth (see Economics) and thus less lucrative for the networks. According to network officials, the ad rates networks can charge for older audiences are substantially less, perhaps even a third lower, than those charged for the youngest demographics.19 In terms of long-term strategy, moreover, what happens in 10 years when a significant portion of the network news audience has died?

The Networks in 2003: War No Cure for the Problems

Traditionally in times of national crisis, like the war in Iraq, viewers have turned to the networks for coverage, if not the first night, then within a day or two.

That did not happen in 2003 with the war in Iraq, and some television writers called this an important change, another signal of decline for the network news and the evening newscasts in particular.20

The total number of viewers tuned to nightly news actually dropped during the war. After rising just slightly the first week of the war, to 32.2 million viewers, nightly news viewership fell as the war continued. The number of viewers on the three nightly newscasts dropped by 2.7 million the second week of the war and 1.6 million more the third week as American soldiers got to Baghdad.21 On cable, by contrast, ratings more than doubled during the war (see Cable), though that audience has vanished since.22

Does this spell an even more dire future for nightly news, as some journalists have predicted?

Not necessarily.

A closer look at the Iraqi war ratings suggests two other lessons.

In a head-to-head moment, when cable news and network news are both in continuous live coverage, Americans still prefer the old broadcast networks.

On the first night of the war, from 9:30 to 11 p.m., 42.2 million people turned to the three networks and their nightly anchors, according to estimates made by Nielsen. Less than half as many (19.2 million viewers) tuned to the three cable networks, and 7.7 million more turned to Fox News on broadcast. Combining Fox broadcast and Fox cable would put Rupert Murdoch’s two channels in second place among the networks (at 15.6 million), well behind the combined NBC and MSNBC (at 22.2 million). But that would be ahead of CBS (at 13 million) and ABC (at 11 million), neither of which has a news cable sibling.23

Breaking News Viewership, First Night of Iraq War
Viewership between 9:30 pm and 11:00 pm on the night of March 19th, 2003.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Jesse Hamlin, “NBC declares victory in war’s TV ratings battle,” San Francisco Chronicle, quoting Nielsen Media Research data.

A further look at the ratings also suggests that people turn to network for some things and cable for others. During times of intense crisis, the continuous 24-hour coverage of cable may be appealing. Indeed, the networks converted to continuous coverage during the first two days of war and saw viewership spike, then went back to regular programming and saw viewership fall. The contrasting formats we found in the content of evening newscasts versus cable are also instructive. Evening news specializes in taped packages, cable in live stand-ups. The Pentagon’s embedded reporter program tended to showcase cable skills (felicity with extemporaneous first-person monologue) and made traditional newsgathering (interviewing, fact-checking, getting all sides of the story, editing) logistically impossible.

But during other times, when events are moving more slowly, people may still look to the somewhat more reflective coverage offered by the once-a-day evening newscasts. The run-up to war may be a case in point. Nightly news viewership actually rose in the weeks leading up to the war. The highest ratings in 2003 occurred in mid and late February, when 32.7 million viewers tuned in to the three evening newscasts, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Tyndall Report said that these two weeks were dominated by coverage of Hans Blix’s preliminary report on Iraq’s weapons programs and the United Nations debate on a resolution in support of using military action against Saddam Hussein.24

NBC Fares Best, Wins the War

The network that drew the most viewers during the war was NBC. In the first week of the war, NBC’s “Nightly News” recorded its single highest number of viewers for the entire year (13.2 million viewers). While NBC’s “Nightly News” picked up a point in share during the week, ABC and CBS lost a point each, though the bump in viewers at NBC was short-lived. One interpretation of these share figures is that NBC’s gain was at the expense of ABC and CBS.25 Yet another interpretation is that during major news events, marginal news viewers tune in to the network nightly newscasts, and do so disproportionately to the time slot leader (in this case NBC). At the same time, some hardcore evening news viewers, news junkies, defect to 24-hour cable. Thus ABC and CBS might have lost more viewers to cable than they gained in new viewers, while NBC gained more than it lost to cable. This is, however, only a theory.

Morning News

After a night of bad news, network executives are probably quick to tell themselves things will look better in the morning.

And they do. Morning show viewership, in contrast with evening, has held steady and in some cases has actually risen slightly in recent years.

As of November 2003, 14.6 million Americans watched the three network morning news shows, one million more than a decade earlier.

The rise has not been steady. For instance, looking again at the critical November sweeps numbers, ratings rose in 2000, during the Florida election fiasco (14.5 million Americans watched the morning shows). Yet a year later, as the U.S. moved into Afghanistan after September 11, the number of people watching the morning shows was actually smaller (13.8 million). The number drifted upward again in November 2003.26

Morning News Viewership, All Networks
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

Why have morning shows proved more stable than evening? Again several factors likely converge here.

Clearly the question of time slot is significant. The morning shows are on, or at least begin, when most Americans are still home, just starting their days. The number of people home in the evenings is shrinking.

The researcher Andrew Tyndall also theorizes that on the two top morning shows – the “Today” show on NBC and “Good Morning America on ABC – a factor in their appeal is that they offer 20 minutes of content without commercial interruption. People wanting news and information, or even diversion, in the morning and getting ready for work will leave when the commercials start. In an age of growing commercial time, this stands out.

The morning shows are also far more flexible and lighter in content. They can fill their time with infotainment, scandal mongering, tabloid fare, thinly veiled reality programming (wedding planning or makeovers) or seasonal recipes, all with a straight face. Or they can devote the first half-hour to news from Iraq or Washington, although they do not often do so.

The morning shows have also tinkered with their formats and changed their looks somewhat more than the evening newscasts to keep viewers interested and freshen their genre. In 1994, NBC began the wave of changes when it moved the show back to a ground-floor studio in Rockefeller Center in New York City that had a window out onto the street (as it had in its earliest days with its first host, Dave Garroway) and began to incorporate the street crowd more in the program. Not long after, CBS and ABC followed suit with their own elaborate studios.27 (The trend has also spread to cable: both CNN and Fox News use street-side studios for their morning programs.) Morning musical guests and street concerts also became a bigger part of the morning show routine in this time. And the weather segments have become longer features that involve the assembled throng. In many ways, too, the anchors of the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” particularly Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, are the biggest stars of the news divisions today, the most highly paid and promoted.

Morning news programs are attractive to advertisers because they provide access to a younger audience than the evening programs. In fall 2003, according to analysis by Magna Global USA, a market research firm, the median age for each of the networks morning shows audience ranged from 51.3 to 53.1 years, compared with 59.5 to 61.2 years for each of the network’s evening shows.28 Looked at another way, while the 25-to-54-year-old audience for evening news is 27 percent larger than the morning news audience, the 50-plus demographic is 145 percent higher than the same demo during morning news. The morning shows are a more efficient way to reach the younger audience that advertisers prefer.29 The morning programs also get “softer” as the younger demographics go to work and the nonworking mothers and older viewers remain at home.

Median Age of News Program Audience
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA, “Daypart briefings”

”Today” on Top

Among the morning shows, NBC’s “Today” has been the clear leader since 1995. Its viewership had actually risen to the top spot by a significant margin in the mid-1980s but declined after the network’s takeover and shakeup by General Electric. “Today” vaulted back to the top in the mid-1990s after the arrival of Katie Couric and after it moved to its street-level studio, largely taking viewers from ABC. Overall, “Today’s” audience is 38 percent larger than it was a decade ago (6.5 million viewers in November 2003, up from 4.7 million viewers in November 1993).30 “Today’s” totals peaked at 7.2 million in November 2000 when NBC’s Tim Russert appeared on an almost daily basis, having sealed his reputation as a political oracle with his Election Night blackboard prediction that results would depend on “Florida, Florida, Florida.”

Morning News Viewership
November 1993 to November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

ABC’s “Good Morning America” now draws the same number of viewers that it did a decade ago, but it has been a roller coaster ride. The No. 1 morning show in 1993, its audience fell by 36 percent by 1998. After revamping the show around Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer in 1999, it had rebuilt its audience by the November 2003 sweeps back to 5.2 million viewers. That had narrowed the gap with “Today” but still put it in second place by 1.3 million viewers.31

CBS’s “Early Show” is a distant third. Despite ups and downs and format changes, its audience in November 2003 was 21 percent smaller than a decade earlier.32

The Sunday Shows

Another franchise of network news that deserves note is the Sunday morning talk show. In recent years, “Meet the Press” on NBC, whose host is Tim Russert, has established itself as the dominant ratings leader. At the end of the 2002-2003 season, it led its nearest competitor, CBS’s “Face the Nation,” with its host, Bob Schieffer, by 1.8 million viewers (4.7 million versus 2.9 million). Since the 1997-1998 season, it has led consistently. ABC has changed the format of “This Week,” with George Stephanopoulos as host, under producer Tom Bettag and a team from Nightline. This is worth watching. At the end of the 2002-2003 season “This Week” averaged 2.75 million viewers.

The Cable News Challenge

It is difficult, as mentioned before, to apportion precisely where network news audiences are going to, given the variety of changes that have occurred in technology, competition and lifestyle, plus the content of network news.

But since the steepest decline in network viewership dates back to the 1980s and the advent of cable, it makes sense to look closer at the impact of that medium.

Network executives are quick to point out that, even while ratings have dropped, more than 29 million people still watch the networks news on average in the evening, and just under 15 million still tune in for the morning shows. Those numbers far outstrip any cable network news program at anytime, even when the cable networks’ highest-rated programs are airing. There are 2 million people watching the average cable news program in prime time, but that figure hardly matches the losses in network viewership in nightly news.33

Ratings and viewership, as cable executives are quick to note, are not the whole story. Ratings tell only how many people are watching a given program. They do not add up how many different people cumulatively turn to cable or network news over the course of a day, a number analogous to unique visitors in the online world. This, cable professionals say, is important in understanding the appeal of their medium.

To more fully assess the flight of network news audiences, one must turn to survey data. These suggest that a more significant part of networks’ loss has been cable’s gain. Contrary to the ratings data, according to studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, more people now prefer cable news than network news as their source for national and international news. As far back as 1993, when CNN was the sole cable news channel, the public was as likely to turn to cable as network. By 1999, Pew data showed cable with a 13-point advantage over network. In March of 2003, the gap had widened to 27 percentage points.34

Where People Go for National/International News, Network vs. Cable
Do you get most of your news about national and international issues from network TV news, from local TV news, or from cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel?
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press unpublished data,
* Dates not to scale. Based on survey responses. Respondents allowed to give two answers.

Why? Is there something in the nature of cable news content that people prefer over network news content? Or is this preference for cable a function of availability?

Here the superior ratings of network news programming over cable become relevant. In head to head competition, when network news and cable news are on at the same time, network news prevails, and by a large margin. This suggests that people apparently do not prefer the way cable does the news; they prefer its instant availability. The age of appointment news – when people would structure their time to wait for a certain program to come on – has faded. People now want their news, or their kids’ programming, or their cooking show, when they want it.

One question is what the networks will do when the current evening anchors retire. Will audiences for evening news shrink further when the familiar faces are gone? If so, will the networks decide to abdicate covering news nearly entirely, having skeletal crews that can offer just enough traditional hard news to fill a morning show or an occasional prime time magazine segment, but not purport to cover the world in any comprehensive way? Or will they seek newer ways of offering news, perhaps to a younger audience? Some say NBC has already taken steps in this direction with CNBC and MSNBC.

Researcher Andrew Tyndall says, “NBC has become the cross-medium multi-demographic news division for the entire conglomerate. It was a great institutional failure of ABC News and CBS News not to have replicated what NBC News has done. If, for example, CBS News was responsible for news for children (on Nickelodeon), for youth (on MTV), for African-Americans (on BET), for men (on Spike), on the radio (Infinity) and so on, it would once again address the mass market that Cronkite once did and put the Tiffany in Viacom, as it were. That potential audience for CBS News is already waiting in Viacom’s distribution system, but the news division just does not have the vision or the corporate ambition to revive its once-famous name.”35


1. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,

2. Associated Press weekly wire stories for 2003.

3. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

4. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

5. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data. Nielsen also collects this data by households rather than viewers. The data show a 24 percent drop in total households for network news since 1993.

6. Craig M. Allen, News Is People (Iowa State University Press, 2001), p. 65.

7. “Internet Sapping Broadcast News Audience,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 11, 2000, P. 1. In 1998, 59 percent of both Internet and non-Internet users reported watching nightly network news on a typical day. In 2000, the percentage of Internet users who regularly watched had dropped to 53 percent. In addition, the number of Internet users who reported watching at least a half-hour a day of network television news dropped from 48 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2000. Among non-Internet users, meanwhile, Pew found virtually no drop-off in the amount of time spent with network news.

8. According to data collected by the Census Bureau, the average commute in 2000 was 25.5 minutes, three minutes longer than in 1990, when the average commute was 22.4 minutes. By comparison, the change in commuting time between 1980 and 1990 was only 40 seconds (from 21.7 minutes to 22.4 minutes). See U.S. Census Bureau American Factfinder, “A Nation on the Move,” 2003, and Federal Highway Administration, “Journey to Work Trends in the United States and Its Major Metropolitan Areas, 1960-1990,” Table 2-2. Online:!.pdf.

9. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data

10. Numerous on-air and off-air senior people in network news have aired this concern privately to the authors of this report over the years.

11. BIA data. The numbers also show a drop in late local news, after prime time. Late local news shows have seen their audience share drop from 57 to 48. The higher share numbers for late night news suggest that it is seen as more appealing than the alternative programming available at the time.

12. 2003 Cable TV Fact Book, Cable Television Advertising Bureau, chart “Long Term TV Household Share Trends.” Prime time share trend data are based on the October-September television year. Available online:

13. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

14. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

15. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data. Increasingly, television professionals have raised questions about the accuracy of ratings and viewership data, especially when the margins between rivals are close. In 2003, for instance, the networks thought changes in methodology were to blame for sudden drops in the number of adult males watching prime time programming. Nielsen Media Research issued a memo defending its methodology and suggesting that less network programming appealed to that demographic group. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to analyze the quality of Nielsen data. It is the industry standard, and in this case, all of the networks are evaluated by the same methodology.

16. J. Max Robins, “Wins of War,” TV Guide, April 7, 2003.

17. Lisa Quan and Stephanie Spady, “Daypart briefings,” Magna Global USA Media Insights, p. 11.

18. “For networks, finding younger viewers is a gray area,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2002.

19. Interviews with authors.

20. Jim Rutenberg, “Suffering News Burnout? Rest of America Is, Too.” New York Times, August 11, 2003.

21. In first week of the war, March 17-23, 2003, 32.2 million people watched the nightly news on average. The second week of the war, that of March 24-30, 29.5 million viewers tuned in; the following week, viewership stood at 27.9 million; and finally, in the week when American armed forces entered Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled, April 9th, 28.5 million viewers were watching.

22. The average number of households turned to cable news channels jumped from 3.3 million to 8.8 million. See Cable World, “Ratings,” March 24, 2003; Cable World, “Ratings,” March 31, 2003.

23. Jesse Hamlin, “NBC declares victory in war’s TV ratings battle,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 2003, p. W2.

24. Tyndall Report, February 22, 2003 (, and Tyndall Report, March 1, 2003 (

25. Associated Press weekly wire stories for 2003. The share of televisions in use tuned to the three newscasts declined slightly. For the week of March 9-15, the three newscasts together received a 43 share. For the week of March 16-22, the three newscasts received a 42 share. NBC gained a point of share, while ABC and CBS each dropped a point of share.

26. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

27. See “Morning news wars,” The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, October 29, 1999.

28. Lisa Quan and Stephanie Spady, “Daypart briefings,” Magna Global USA Media Insights, pp. 2 and 11.

29. Ibid, pp. 1 and 10. For example, in fall 2003, the “Today” show on NBC received 2.6 ratings in the 25-54-year-old demographic and 3.9 ratings among those older than 50, while the NBC “Nightly News” received 2.8 ratings in the 25-54 demo and 8.4 in the 50+ demo.

30. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

31. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

32. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

33. Nielsen Media Research unpublished data.

34. Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, “Late March 2003 War Tracking Poll,” March 20-27, 2003.

35. The press made a fair amount of another turning point in 2003 in the rivalry between cable and the three networks. This was the year that the combined totals for cable channels supported by advertising (this does not include noncommercial premium channels such as HBO) surpassed the three broadcast networks in prime time viewers, according to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau, Cable TV Fact Book, “Long term total TV household share trends.” (Online: In the 2002-2003 season, commercial cable drew 41.3 percent of viewers. The Big Three networks accounted for 30.6 percent. All other viewing (including Fox, UPN, WB, PBS, independent stations and pay cable networks like HBO) received 28.1 percent of viewers.

A decade earlier, in the 1993-1994 season, the three networks accounted for 52.4 percent of all primetime viewership, while commercial cable had 21.3 percent. Pay cable and other broadcast networks accounted for the other 26.3 percent.