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In the 1990s, cable news networks replaced network television for many Americans as the primary source for breaking news, just as in the 1960s television supplanted newspapers. In the new millennium, a broadband-enabled, always-on Internet threatens to usurp those cable news networks. The recent tsunami disaster, The New York Times noted, marked the first time significant numbers of Americans turned to blogs for breaking news.

Where does that leave network news? In 2004, the decline in evening news audience continued, as did declines in prime-time magazines. Morning news, in contrast, continued to see its audiences grow. And despite the decision to abdicate coverage of much of the prime-time proceedings at the nominating conventions, on election night November 2004, twice as many people still turned to the old commercial networks as did cable for the results.

Nightly Newscasts

The discussion of network news audience trends usually begins with the signature nightly newscasts.

They are the most famous news programs, and the audience declines here are the most dramatic in TV news. Between their peak in November 1969 and 2003, as we noted last year, ratings for those programs fell by 59%. Was there any sign in 2004 that the trend was abating?1

The answer appears to be no, though 2005 offers new possibilities.

Television audiences are counted in numerous ways. The most familiar is ratings, which count the number of all television sets in the U.S. 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, since two or more people are often watching a given set.

Between November 2003 and November 2004, ratings for nightly news fell 2% and share fell 5%.2

In absolute numbers, that means that in November 2004, 28.8 million viewers watched the three network evening newscasts, half a million less than in November the year before. That is a 45% decline from the 52.1 million people who watched the nightly newscasts in 1980, the year CNN began.3

The numbers translate into 2004 ratings of 20.2, down from 20.6 the year before. They represent a 38 share, down from 40 in 2003.4

It’s worth noting that a rating point (1% of American homes with a TV set) implies many more people in 2004 than it did in 1969. With population increases and demographic trends like more single heads of households, there are many more homes than 35 years before. Thus the decline in viewership is not nearly as steep as the decline in ratings.

Evening News Viewership, All Networks

November 1980 to November 2004

Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media unpublished data, November – November

In 1980, the three commercial network nightly news broadcasts had a combined 37% rating, and a 75% share. And at their historic peak, in 1969, they had a 50% rating and an 85% share. The November 2004 figures mean that ratings have fallen almost 59.6 % since 1969, and 45.4% sinc1e 1980. Share has fallen 55.3% since 1969 and 49.3% since 1980.5

Evening News Ratings
November 1980 to November 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
Ratings taken for month of November.

Does this suggest that people no longer want the kind of carefully produced and edited, hard-news-oriented product they find in nightly news?

The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Last year in this report, we went through a detailed analysis of the myriad factors driving the decline. We found that a factor often underrated is that the programs are on at a time – usually between 5:30 and 7:00 – when a decreasing number of Americans are at home.

There is also evidence, in survey data, that audiences are not so much giving up entirely on nightly news as catching it less often. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been asking Americans whether they watch evening news since 1993.

The data show a precipitous drop between 1993 and 2000 in the number who said they regularly watched nightly network newscasts. Since then, however, the data show a gradual increase in regular viewing. (The Pew Center’s survey data suggest that network and local viewership track with one another. Both show a decline between 1993 and 2000. Both show increases since, between surveys taken in 2000 and in April 2004.)

How could ratings drop while more people tell pollsters they are regular viewers? Are the polls wrong? Not necessarily. The likely answer is that what people consider “regular” viewing has changed. And that is significant in trying to assess the role network evening news plays in American culture.

People haven’t simply abandoned network evening news. Many still find it has value, more than the ratings might suggest. But they watch it less often, for a variety of reasons (see the 2004 Annual Report), including altered commuting times and an increasing number of alternative news sources. That is potentially an important insight for the networks, and may signify a recognition of a fact seen in our content studies both this year and last: that network nightly newscasts offer a kind of content – quality of sourcing, seriousness of topic and more – that viewers cannot find anywhere else on television.

Network vs. Local News Consumption, Over Time
“Regular viewership,” 1993-2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
* qu: How often do you watch the national nightly network news on CBS, ABC or NBC? How often do you watch the local news about your viewing area which usually comes on before the national news in the evening and again later at night?

It is also worth noting that the number of network evening news viewers has not fallen in a straight line, but in cycles. The mid-1990s saw rapid drops – 8.5% between 1994 and 1995, then 3.4% in 1996, and, after a flat year in 1997, another 7.5% in 1998. Audiences actually grew by 3% in 2001, but then fell 8.5% in 2002, and lost another 2.7% in 2003. At the margins, audiences are attracted by major news events (impeachment proceedings in 1997, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). While the declines in 2004 continued apace, they also fell on the low end of annual declines.

Importantly, these declines have occurred amid declines in viewership of network television generally – soap operas, primetime, sports and so on. News viewership has tended to suffer less erosion than other dayparts.

Some analysts also believe that the decline in nightly network news viewership may soon begin to level off. They argue that most of the cultural shifts that have left fewer people at home at 6:30 (even earlier on the West Coast) have already taken place. The expansion of cable has slowed and in a few years may be complete.6 In effect, the structural factors involved in the decline have already occurred.

Another possible element in viewership decline is that there is now less news to watch than there used to be in a 30-minute newscast because of increased commercials and promotions. Viewers tune in to watch news, not advertising. But most of the shrinkage in the newscast’s news hole has already occurred.

Evening News Share
November 1993 to November 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
*Ratings taken for month of November.

Others wonder whether, with the retirement of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, network news might be on the cusp of a further decline. We think a closer look suggests that the retirements, far from accelerating an inevitable demise-may present something more interesting-a risk and an opportunity.

The programs risk losing some loyal audiences who sense a loss of heft with the departure of familiar faces. Audience loss for a specific newscast, however, may result in loyal viewers’ sampling competitors rather than defecting from network news altogether.

If such a defection happens, even if the programs continue to make some profit, the network owners may decide that they could generate more revenue with other programming during that time, and that the financial gain would outweigh any public outcry over their abandoning the programs.

There is still a third possibility: The retirements of the two anchors are an opportunity for change in the newscasts in an attempt to attract new audiences. ABC, with Perter Jennings still in the chair, may think it has an opportunity to regain the No. 1 spot. NBC, the current leader, has a major stake in ensuring that the new anchor, Brian Williams, keeps that position. And CBS, after the embarrassment of “Memogate,” has no reason not to take risks, innovate, and try to rebuild a battered news division whose dismantling culminated, rather than began, with the fiasco of that story.

To assess which of these scenarios is more likely, it is worthwhile to go deeper into the audience numbers.

Nightly News Audience Demographics

To get a sense of the challenges and opportunities, it makes sense to look at a breakdown of who is watching – the demographics of nightly news.

The most worrisome demographic, of course, is age.

Most news consumption skews older, but as we observed last year, nightly news, thanks in part to its early-evening timeslot, skews the oldest.

What is notable heading into 2005 is that the audiences have become ever so slightly younger.

The median age of the viewer of the Big Three still sits at about 60 years. In the latest data available, however, as of December 2004, two of the three networks, CBS and NBC, saw their audiences get younger. ABC did not.

Median Age of Nightly News Viewers
2002, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA, ’’Daypart Briefings,’’ December 15, 2004

The numbers reflect another phenomenon as well. As older people, who make up the most loyal part of the network audience and who are at home when the newscasts come on, live longer, the average age moves further upward.

The nightly network news audience is older than that of cable. According to survey data on media consumption from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, cable audiences actually exceed those of network among people under 50. Network audiences overtake cable audiences in the older age group.

Network and Cable Viewership, by Age
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Pew Research Center Biennial Media Consumption Survey,” June 8, 2004.

Yet beyond age, demographics might be considered one of the surprising strengths of the nightly newscasts.

Let’s look first at one demographic people usually ignore, political ideology. Some critics, particularly on the right, have long argued that network news tilted to the political left. Dan Rather in particular has been the focus of that charge. In the 1980s, Senator Jesse Helms urged conservatives to buy up CBS stock to position themselves as Dan Rather’s new bosses. Fifteen years later, the former CBS correspondent Bernie Goldberg’s book about his experience at CBS, called “Bias,” hit bestseller lists. Last year, many of the Web sites that tore apart 60 Minutes’ (Wednesday) flawed segment on President Bush’s National Guard service focused on a presumed anti-Republican political bias at CBS.7

Rather was not the only network personality to be accursed of having an unspoken political axe to grind. Peter Jennings has also been accused of having a liberal slant at times over the years, as did ABC News’s political director, Mark Halperin, in 2004 for an internal memo suggesting that Bush’s political distortions in the campaign were more egregious than Kerry’s.

Given all that, there are some striking surprises in the numbers. Polling data from the Pew Research Center in 2004 broke down the audiences of almost all major media outlets in the country by party affiliation and political ideology.

The numbers show that network news audiences may come closer to reflecting the general population than those of any other news source in the country.

Over all, according to Pew data, network nightly news audiences are 27% Republican, 39% Democratic, and 27% Independent.8 Those breakdowns barely deviate from the population at large. The number of Republican-leaning viewers is an exact match to the population. The number of Democratic-leaning viewers is three percentage points higher.9

The only other media source that comes even close to matching the population over all is the Weather Channel. Network news enjoys a politically diverse audience, a fact that runs contrary to the notion that Americans are seeking out news outlets that simply reinforce their political ideology. It may also reflect the fact, as content analysis shows, that the network newscasts are also uniquely adept among TV news shows at representing diverse viewpoints.

The Race Among the Networks

Which network is winning and losing in the evening?

One thing that has not changed is the relative strength of NBC Nightly News. While hardly immune to audience erosion, it has succeeded in recent years by managing to lose fewer viewers than its rivals lost.

Between 1993 and 2003 the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather saw its viewership fall 37%. ABC’s World New Tonight’s viewership fell 29%. But the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw fell the least, just 18%.

What occurred in 2004? NBC was still on top with 11.2 million viewers. Perhaps even more significant, that represented audience growth of nearly 3% from 10.9 million in November 2003. And this was the second consecutive year that NBC Nightly News showed November-to-November audience gains.10

The other two networks have not been so successful. As of November 2004, ABC was in second at 9.9 million, down 2 % (from 10.1 million the year before). CBS followed with 7.7 million viewers, down 7.2 % from 8.3 million.11

In some ways, NBC’s slight climb is all the more interesting because of serious challenges it faces.

Evening News Viewership, by Network
1980 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media unpublished data, November – November

First, the network has lost its advantage in primetime programming over the last several years as many of it prime-time mainstays have ended. (In spring of 2004, the network ended the shows Friends and Frasier). In the sweeps month of November 2004, NBC had only one program in the top ten shows, and that was ER, a holdover from the earlier era. CBS had six, and ABC three.12

On the other side of the coin, the CBS Evening News has failed to gain competitively despite its prime-time success.

What impact does entertainment programming have on the success of network news? TV professionals believe news and entertainment audiences reinforce each other. More people watching prime-time programs means more people being exposed to promotions for news shows. Millions of viewers who turn off a certain network at the end of prime time are inclined to stay with that network when they next turn on the set, a so-called carryover effect. For NBC, superiority in prime time in the mid-1990s and beyond helped create a sense of brand about the network as a place for smart, hip shows. CBS, in the days of “Murder She Wrote” or “Diagnosis Murder,” was the senior citizen’s crime-fighting network.

The second change at NBC is the retirement of anchor of Tom Brokaw in December 2004. Dan Rather was set to leave the CBS anchor chair in March 2005. Jennings, at ABC, is 66 years old. At least some TV observers were expecting Brokaw’s departure and his replacement with Brian Williams to hurt ratings. ” ‘Nightly News’ is likely to suffer some audience erosion once Brokaw steps down, at least in the short term, perhaps allowing ABC’s World News Tonight, now No. 2, to climb past NBC,” The Washington Post quoted the network analyst Andrew Tyndall13 as speculating in April 2004.14

So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case, but history suggests that audience habits move like glaciers rather than earthquakes. There was similarly little major change when Walter Cronkite handed over the anchor chair to Rather or John Chancellor gave way to Brokaw. In the current climate, Peter Jennings is a known quantity already “sampled” by most Americans. Those who like him, he already has, so while Williams might lure new people from Jennings, the opposite would occur only if Williams drove them away. Meanwhile, CBS awaits a new anchor, who might change the dynamic even further, though that may be unlikely to happen in the short term when the veteran Bob Schieffer takes over as interim anchor. Even then, Jennings’s familiarity might still limit his potential.

It is rarely questioned in television that an anchor’s popularity has a major influence on the ratings of the program he or she is attached to. Even here, however, it should be noted that during their time competing with each other, Rather, Jennings and Brokaw have each held every spot in the ratings competition, first, second and third. Given the diminished viewership of nightly news, anchors clearly do not have the same importance in the culture they once did. It seems difficult to believe that 30 years ago an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, was the most trusted man in America, whose reporting, the author David Halberstam argued in “The Powers That Be,” helped tip public opinion against the war in Vietnam in 1968. Nonetheless, American TV networks still promote their anchors as the face of their news divisions. And anchors are the face of the networks during major news events, to the extent that the nets still try to cover those events.


The audience trends for the The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which started in 1973 as The Robert MacNeil Report and later became the half-hour MacNeil/Lehrer Report, stand in striking contrast to those of commercial network television. Data published in the PBS National Audience Handbook show that NewsHour ratings were remarkably stable over the five years from 1998 to 2003, averaging a 1.2 household rating. According to PBS, that translates to roughly 2.7 million viewers each weeknight and more than 8 million different or “unduplicated” viewers who watch at least one night a week.15 That is still significantly smaller than even third-place CBS. But the NewsHour’s ability to hold its audience distinguishes it in network nightly news.

There are several explanations of the NewsHour’s stability. One is the distinctive nature of the content – longer stories, longer segments, less opinion. The other is the ability of local PBS stations to air the program later or even rebroadcast it in the late-night period. The addition of a BBC World News half-hour lead-in in many markets may also strengthen the NewsHour’s appeal. Also, both host Jim Lehrer and senior correspondent Gwen Ifill both moderated presidential debates in November, while NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel had no representative. At a time when Nightline and other magazine programs are having difficulty, and commercial nightly newscasts are hemorrhaging audience, the NewsHour’s numbers suggests a health that is unusual.

Morning News

In the mornings, the audience picture is one of stability, but below the surface there appears to be some shifting.

Over the longer term, thanks to audience growth and lower overhead, morning news has become increasingly important in network news. Though the trend line is bumpy, at the end of 2003, 14.6 million people watched morning news programs, a million more than a decade earlier.16

In 2004, that number remained unchanged.

Morning News Viewership, All Networks
November 1993 to November 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
* Ratings taken in month of November.

Why is morning news holding its own while evening is not? The study outlined last year the factors that have made morning TV more stable than evening (see the 2004 Annual Report) – more people at home in the mornings, a 20-minute commercial-free block at the top of the broadcasts, a flexibility of content and format, and a greater level of experimentation over the years. Even with that, the audience for the three nightly newscasts together is still almost double that for the morning newscasts at any given moment. But because they are on for at least two hours each day, they make more than twice as much money as the evening shows.

Beneath that stability, however, 2004 saw some changes at play. The perennial leader, NBC, is losing ground, and ABC is gaining. NBC’s Today Show saw viewership drop 3% from November 2003 to November 2004, from 6.5 to 6.3 million.17

Some observers have wondered if Today might be losing momentum in its content. An article in the issue of Broadcasting & Cable magazine for February 23, 2004, noted that the program had stopped dominating the “get” – getting sought after individuals on-air ahead of the competition – as it once did. Mel Gibson went to Good Morning America when he launched his controversial blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” as did Howard Dean after his “I Have A Scream” speech upon losing the Iowa Democratic primary. Andrew Tyndall believes that the decision to stretch the two-hour Today Show into a three-hour morning may have diluted the first two hours of the program, perhaps by stretching the staff’s time and imagination thinner. That doesn’t mean it might not pay off financially. It may be worth it to NBC to generate more revenue from a third hour, even if it pays a price in a slight erosion of its rating lead in the first two.18

ABC’s number-two-rated Good Morning America, meanwhile, saw its audience increase by 4%, moving closer to the top-rated Today Show. In November 2004, 5.4 million people watched the program on average each weekday, compared with 5.2 million the year before.19

And CBS’s Early Show, whose time slot has a long history of changing faces and program titles and running a distant third, had stable audience numbers with 2.9 million viewers in November 2004, the same as in November 2003. That is the highest viewership the Early Show has had since 1998, when the figure was also 2.9 million. That still leaves CBS even further behind in the morning than it is in the evening news race.

A New York Times article in May 2004 suggested that CBS, after many years of experimenting with its morning format – everything from running all hard news back in the 1970s to a show, in the late 1980s, that included the comedian Bob Saget – may have hit on a successful formula.

In part, that involves a larger cast than its rivals. And Tyndall’s research notes other differences, including longer news blocks, fewer hard-news segments (specifically reduced coverage of Iraq and the campaign in 2004), more health, more lifestyle, more consumer news, more cooking, and more self-promotion of CBS’s own prime-time programming.

Another ingredient involves tweaking the usual mold of two anchors, a newsreader and a jolly weatherman. The CBS program features four anchors, in addition to the weather reporter, which gives the show a slightly different feel and rhythm, more of a true ensemble resembling in some ways Barbara Walters’s program The View. But some roles remain firmly defined. Harry Smith’s role as the serious male anchor is still similar to Charlie Gibson’s at Good Morning America (At NBC, Today adopts a more unisex, less gender-stereotypical share of the workload). The big difference is that the role of the female anchor has been split up among three women.

(Having several anchors also allows cast members to be absent without upsetting the look and rhythm of the broadcast. On the downside, it means CBS can’t promote the program by showcasing a dominant celebrity anchor like Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer).

Morning News Viewership, by Network
1993 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
* Ratings taken in month of November.
Morning News Share
November 1993 to November 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research unpublished data,
*Ratings taken for month of November.
Median Age of Morning News Viewers
2003 vs. 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

The Sunday Shows

The Sunday-morning talk show world has been dominated in recent years by NBC’s Meet the Press, hosted by its Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert. That continued in 2004. According to the January 9, 2005 issue of USA Today, Meet the Press averaged 4.3 million viewers for the season.20 That would be a slight decline from the program’s reported average viewership for the 2002-2003 season,21 4.7 million, but still reflects a comfortable lead over both CBS’s Face the Nation and ABC’s This Week.22

Face the Nation, hosted by Bob Schieffer, continues to be second with an average of about 3.8 million viewers in 2004.23 It is also the only half-hour program of the Sunday interview shows.

ABC, which revolutionized the Sunday format in the 1980s by converting the program to an hour, adding a reporter roundtable, multiple interviews and setup pieces built around host David Brinkley, struggled after Brinkley’s retirement in 1996 (he contributed commentary pieces until 1997). This Week continues in third place in the Sunday morning news race with an average of 2.5 million viewers in 2004.24

ABC News’s president, David Westin, has bet on the former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos as the new host. He persuaded Nightline’s renowned executive producer, Tom Bettag, to take over the show. Bettag (who has since returned to Nightline as executive producer) is as highly regarded a program producer as there is in network TV. Many critics credit him for taking Nightline, one of the most acclaimed news programs in history, and making it markedly better, and reviving anchor Ted Koppel’s passion for the show. Before that Bettag produced the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather when it was No. 1.

The Sunday morning time slot is the only one in which the cable-based Fox News Channel has a regular presence on the broadcast Fox network, with “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” It ranks fourth with around 1.5 million viewers a week.25

A discussion of the Sunday morning landscape would be incomplete without mention of Charles Osgood and CBS’s Sunday Morning. The eclectic mix of arts, culture and politics celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004, and (despite worries following Charles Kuralt’s 1994 departure from the show) continues to draw a loyal and growing audience that reportedly exceeds some 4 million viewers a week.26

Prime-Time Magazines

A genre that once seemed to embody the future of network television news may fade further from the airwaves in 2005.

The best-known problems concern what is now known as 60 Minutes Wednesday, the weeknight primetime clone of the venerable Sunday program, began 2005 in disarray and in jeopardy.27 The program’s executive producer, his second in command, and the broadcast’s star producer had been removed, along with a news division vice president, in the wake of an independent report (read the CBS REPORT) criticizing a September 8, 2004 segment about President Bush’s National Guard service.

Worse still, the program’s ratings began to pale in comparison to the network’s highly successful prime-time entertainment schedule. It wasn’t that 60 Minutes Wednesday was failing, but rather that the bar had been raised. Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Television, told television writers in early 2005 that “60 Minutes Wednesday has to earn its right to be on the schedule,” adding, “Its [ratings] were not particularly wonderful even before the [Bush] story got on the air.”28

And by February 2005, ABC’s Primetime Live was also reported to be threatened because of declining ratings.

There was a period when news magazines dominated the prime-time landscape. The format was less expensive to produce than the entertainment shows they replaced, and thus not only added to the news divisions’ contribution to revenues but could make money with smaller audiences than entertainment programs. Some programs became mini-franchises. Dateline NBC duplicated itself across the week. Now news magazines have been eclipsed in prime time by reality television, a form even cheaper to produce.

One show that people imagined might be facing change, given the retirement of its founding executive producer, Don Hewitt, seemed a picture of relative stability: 60 Minutes, which started its thirty-seventh season in September 2004, has placed in Nielsen’s Top 10 television programs twenty-three times and places consistently in Nielsen’s weekly Top 20 list.29

Unpublished Nielsen data provided to the Project suggests the original Sunday 60 Minutes remains the leader of prime-time magazines. In a season-to-date report generated on January 26, 2005, the program averaged 15.2 million viewers. Its sister show, 60 Minutes Wednesday, had 8.6 million. An average of the audiences for NBC’s Dateline for Friday and Sunday (Dateline, unlike 60 Minutes, does not present itself as two distinct shows) was 8.8 million, followed by ABC’s 20/20 (8.6 million), CBS’s 48 Hours (7.5 million), and ABC’s Primetime Live (6.4 million).

Prime-Time News Magazine Viewership
September 20, 2004 to January 25, 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Unpublished Nielsen data
*Primetime Live data includes an average of Friday and Sunday numbers. Data in the chart do not include numbers for special editions.


Nightline, which began in 1979 as “America Held Hostage” during the Iran hostage crisis, ended 2004 facing what some feared would prove a mortal crisis. Two years ago, the network made an ill-fated play for the CBS “Late Night” star David Letterman, promising him the Nightline time slot. Anchor Ted Koppel’s current contract ends in 2005, and many insiders suspect that may provide the network with the moment to kill the program, if it wants to.

During 2004 Nightline notched its lowest number of average viewers ever, 3.7 million, a drop from 6.2 million in 1993.30 A Nielsen report in January 2005 put the number for the current season slightly higher, at an average of 3.8 million.

The latest concern about the broadcast became public when the executive producer, Leroy Sievers, announced in September 2004 that he was leaving. In a written announcement, Sievers said “the company has made it clear that it is considering fundamental changes to the format and the direction that the broadcast takes in the future.”31

A network spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, in an interview with the Hartford Courant, dismissed the notion that Sievers’s departure foreshadowed the end of Nightline or of Koppel as its star. “Ted Koppel is part of our DNA,” Schneider said. “He has given 40 years to ABC News, 25 of those leading Nightline, and is as passionate and committed today as when he started.”32

But the Courant also spoke to TV observers who raised a good deal more doubt. “This is a network that is getting its clock cleaned at that time of night,” said Deborah Potter of NewsLab, a nonprofit center that focuses on training and research for television and radio newsrooms. “The truth is, Ted’s contract is just about up, he makes a lot of money and doesn’t work on the show all that much. ABC is looking at this as a way to make more money.”33

After Sievers’s announcement, the network announced that Tom Battag, who had left the day-to-day running of Nightline to Sievers after taking over the reins of the Sunday morning program, “This Week,” would return to Nightline.

Bettag told USA Today in January 2005 that Nightline’s declining numbers reflected a widespread falling off and “splintering” of network news viewership in the face of cable and the Internet. An additional factor, he said, was ABC’s tepid prime-time weekday ratings at 10 p.m. (eastern). Yet Bettag contended that the sheer abundance of information from cable and the Web is precisely why Nightline should, in principle, endure: “Particularly when so much of what’s on the tube is filled with people just telling you their opinion” and “at a time when people are saying, ‘Hey, what’s happening beyond our shores is really affecting my life in a lot of ways,’ this is the broadcast that they know they can turn to.” Nevertheless, he added, “You’re not going to say, ‘I guarantee we’re not going to be here or I guarantee we’re not going to be here.’ “34


Established in the early 1980s, PBS’s Frontline hit the airwaves as network news divisions increasingly were feeling the pressure to turn a profit, and “magazine shows” began to replace long-form documentaries in prime time. In many ways, it has that genre to itself, though it is now being challenged somewhat not by journalism but by documentary-style advocacy films sometimes aired in theaters, such as Fahrenheit 9/11.35

In 2004, as part of a five-program election series, Frontline broadcast a two-hour dual biography of Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush. There was a two-hour examination of the first year of the war in Iraq36, a one-hour program looking at “The Jesus Factor”37 and an hour devoted to the question, “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?”38 That work stands out in the current TV landscape. It continues to strike some as remarkable that PBS, alone in TV news, offers long-form biographies of the candidates.

The Networks and the 2004 Elections

One of the most important questions about 2004 is whether the presidential election will be viewed in retrospect as a watershed (or merely another step) in the gradual decline in public perceptions of the authority of network news as a source about politics and major events.

Four facts from the campaign year are important in this regard.

Before the convention season, there was no clear rise or drop in the volume of campaign coverage on the evening newscasts compared with previous years. The primary season was shorter than usual, and unlike those of 2000, 1992 and 1988, involved contests in only one party. As a consequence, the total number of minutes of primary-season coverage on the nightly newscasts was lower than in some previous years and higher than in others, according to tracking from Tyndall Research. That appears to be more a function of scheduling decisions made by the Democratic National Committee, state parties, and voters, not journalistic decisions made by the networks. At the peak of the primary season, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the coverage showed no diminution from previous cycles.

That coverage, however, was soon overshadowed by the decision of all three networks to walk away from covering the conventions every night.

In late July, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, hosted a panel discussion at which Peter Jennings of ABC “…[likened] conventions to ‘infomercials’… There’s not a great deal of reason to show up.”

The NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer responded: “We’re about to elect a president of the United States at a time when we have young people dying in our name overseas, we just had a report from the 9/11 commission which says we are not safe as a nation, and one of these two groups of people is going to run our country. The fact that you three networks decided it was not important enough to run in prime time, the message that gives the American people is huge.”

The exchange offers a snapshot of the argument over the network decision to substantially leave the conventions.

That argument, played out mostly in brief quotes and sound bites in news stories, deserves detailed examination to determine whether, as Lehrer implied, the message the networks were sending was either significant or new.

The network argument is really twofold. First, the conventions are no longer newsworthy because they are scripted “infomercials.” Second, the networks are relieved of their public service obligation to air them because the conventions can be watched on cable – in particular on the three news channels, as well as C-Span – along with PBS on the broadcast airwaves.

The critics counter that those are excuses. The networks, they say, are backing away from the conventions purely to make more money – they can do better airing reality shows than the conventions – and in the process the networks now have given up not just on public service but on journalistic credibility, too.

Let’s take the points one at a time.

The notion that the conventions are not news defines a news event as one at which something unexpected might happen. Certainly, the conventions are now scripted. Everything – the platform debates, the speeches, the “spontaneous” demonstrations – is controlled in advance.39 (In 1972 The New York Times discovered the GOP had a script for every moment of its meeting in Miami.)

The unexpected is not the only kind of news, however. It can also be defined as an event, however planned, that has a major impact on public opinion. The networks do cover this second kind of news when it suits them, from inaugurations and funerals to State of the Union addresses and other ritual civic events. And by this standard conventions clearly qualify as news. Not only do they represent the only time most Americans will hear either candidate explain his vision for the country at any length, but they are also the lone opportunity for the two political parties to do so, and for other party leaders to introduce themselves to the country beyond eight-second sound bites.

Once again, 2004 demonstrated that conventions make a measurable difference in who wins, and how Americans perceive the parties, as have most conventions in the modern era. In 2004, John Kerry failed to impress undecided voters, missed the opportunity to define his vision of the country or explain his record, and set himself up for subsequent attacks on his military record. The Republican Party, in turn, succeeded in defining Kerry in GOP terms, laying out a broad plan for the future, depicting itself as populist and strong. And the President enjoyed an 11-percentage-point bounce in the polls.40

So the first part of the network argument – that conventions are not news – is problematic and insufficient as an explanation.

What of the second part of the argument – that audiences can see the conventions elsewhere, so the networks need not air so much of them? Obviously people, especially cable and satellite viewers, can now go elsewhere.

The critics believe, however, that that argument is insufficient because the networks are different from other channels. As broadcasters, they are still the closest thing we have left to a mass medium, and as such, they still have an agenda-setting power. The most popular program on cable news -Bill O’Reilly – has a viewership of about 3 million, which would get him cancelled on any of the networks. If the broadcast networks choose to air something, that makes it more important, and more people watch. The networks, in other words, lead public behavior; they do not merely follow it. That endows them with social responsibility.41

Who is more right here?

Up to 2000, the research suggests that the critics had a point. The Harvard scholar Tom Patterson studied the decline in audience for the conventions from 1960 through 2000 and found that the networks were indeed driving rather than following the convention viewing behavior.42 When the networks first cut back on coverage, in 1976, (they ultimately went from 60 hours in 1972 to 25 in 1984) a gradual drop in viewership ensued. But there had been no drop before that to precipitate the network cutbacks. Then, when the networks began their second big cutback in convention hours in 1992, there was a lag before audiences began to drop again. When the networks did not cut back in hours, the audiences also did not drop.

The most logical interpretation is that the networks helped create the audience decline. They signaled that the conventions were less important, made them less available to watch, and the public began to respond to that attitude. The audience, however, declined much more gradually than the airtime for coverage, which fell by more than half.

What happened in 2004? The election generated higher interest than the campaign four years earlier, as measured both in voter turnout and most pre-election surveys. If the networks have no agenda-setting power, then logically the audience would have migrated to cable, but not necessarily shrunk overall.

That is what happened. The Big Three commercial broadcast networks lost 3.4 million viewers for the Democratic convention and another 2.2 million for the Republican. But Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN gained some 2.9 million for the Democrats and another 4.4 million for the Republicans. And PBS by itself nearly doubled its audience, from a combined 3.8 million viewers in 2000 to some 6 million viewers in 2004. Added together, the combined convention audience increased by some 4 million viewers between 2000 (41.9 million) and 2004 (45.8 million).

Convention Ratings vs. Hours Telecast
1960 to 2000
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Data taken from ‘Vital Statistics on American Politics,’ Congressional Quarterly Press.
*Average Audience Rating is an average of ratings from the Democratic and Republican Conventions. Hours telecast is total hours for both Democratic and Republican Conventions.
Viewership of Democratic Convention
2000 vs. 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Data for commerical and cable networks is Nielsen Media data reported by Networks and published in USA Today, August 2, 2004. Data for PBS was provided to the Project by PBS.
Viewership of Republican Convention
2000 vs. 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Data for commerical and cable networks is Nielsen Median data as published by the Dallas Morning News on September 7, 2004. Data for PBS was provided to the Project by PBS.

By 2004, the networks’ agenda-setting power seems to have dissipated. But they had a hand in shedding that power. With it came a certain responsibility. That responsibility is now gone, though with it, too, may go the power to direct people to watch entertainment programming the networks would like them to see.43

What did viewers who migrated to cable see? As it turns out, they didn’t quite get to see the convention proceedings, or the kind of deep background reporting that the networks might have provided. A host of TV critics, as well as our own monitoring, reveal that for large portions of the conventions – even most of the time – Fox, MSNBC and to a lesser degree CNN used the conventions as a backdrop for their regular programming rather than covering the proceedings themselves. So Chris Matthews hosted panel discussions for much of each evening on Hardball. Bill O’Reilly debated guests during his prime-time slot. Larry King did his talk show. Those news channels turned to the podium only sometimes.

The closest viewers got to seeing the conventions, even in prime time, was on C-Span, followed by PBS. The cable channels have not in any serious way tried to cover or duplicate what the networks once did in airing the conventions.

To some this shows that cable channels, like the networks, have decided the conventions are now less newsworthy. To others, it reveals that the cable channels are structured in prime time more as a series of shows than newsgathering operations. PBS came closer to covering the conventions and had significant audience success. There is, as we noted before, truth on both sides.

Tuning In To Fox
Viewers 10 – 11pm, in millions

Democratic Conv. (Mon.) Republican Conv. (Tues.)
Fox News 1.4 5.2
CNN 2.6 1.5
MSNBC 1.0 1.6
NBC 4.5 5.1
CBS 4.6 4.4
ABC 4.4 4.3
PBS 3 2.2

First night of broadcast networks’ coverage.
Source: Data for commercial broadcast and cable networks from Nielsen Media Research as published in the New York Times on September 2, 2004.Data for PBS provided to the Project by the network.

So in the end, the network arguments are partly right and partly wrong. The argument that conventions aren’t news falters in the face of evidence that they are important to the outcome of the elections. The argument that, regardless, people can watch them elsewhere appears to be borne out in 2004, maybe for the first time, though what viewers got on cable wasn’t quite what they would get on network.

Perhaps the bitterness over this issue comes from what the networks don’t admit to. The networks aren’t really cutting back on conventions because they are scripted rituals. Inaugurations are scripted rituals, and the networks don’t shy away from covering them. The difference is that inaugurations occur during the daytime rather than in prime time and the opportunity cost of pre-empting entertainment programs isn’t as high as it is for eight full nights of prime time.

That is the “message” Lehrer had in mind. By refusing to devote eight nights of prime time every four years to a major civic event purely out of public obligation reveals that the networks and their news divisions no longer feel as much obligation or see as much financial advantage in fulfilling that civic function. They now operate more as financial corporations than they once did and less as public institutions. The public interest is a smaller part of their decision-making, though it is bad public relations for their executives to put it in those terms. When asked to justify their networks’ decisions journalists publicly denounced the party conventions and discouraged people from watching them.

Economics was always part of the network calculation on conventions. But once, those events were a great way to establish the network brand, and helped turn network personnel into stars. People bought TV sets to watch the conventions, and the ratings were good. Now the economics has turned. The networks can make more money airing Fear Factor and Extreme Makeover – and even skip whole nights of the conventions altogether – because they can argue that audiences can find the conventions elsewhere on the dial.44

This year saw a new calculation: that what the networks gain in dollars by skipping so much of the conventions is worth more than the cost of the erosion of value in the network news brand. The networks may be wrong in that calculation – the damage to their brand may be higher than they think. Or they may be right – people no longer look to networks as public-service institutions and thus are neither surprised nor disappointed. But the calculation keeps moving in one direction, and logically, Americans will increasingly see the network news divisions more as a part of their economic institutions and decreasingly as public services. That change, 20 years of survey research has made clear, is at the heart of the declining credibility of the press more as a whole.

Aside from the conventions, the networks had hardly abandoned the campaign. The Tyndall Report, which analyzes every weekday network newscast, reported the number of minutes for the whole year devoted to the campaign up slightly, 7%, and the highest since 1992.45

Then came the debates. The decision to air the three presidential debates and the one vice presidential encounter was not as complicated as the decisions about the conventions. These were two-hour events, on just four nights – a much smaller expense with much more limited impact on the networks’ programming schedules. The debates also include the potential for the unexpected.

Perhaps even more important, the audience numbers were also pretty good. Taking all networks and cable outlets together, the audience for the political debates is enormous. Airing them was genuinely a public service, since they carried no commercials. As a consequence, Nielsen does not list them among its most-watched programs, so many TV writers and scholars overlook their large audience. NBC News’s coverage of the first presidential debate received the highest viewership numbers of any network for any of the debates, 17.2 million.

Viewership of Each Presidential Debate, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Data for commerical broadcast and cable networks is Nielsen Research data as published in The Los Angeles Times on October 2, 2004, October 12, 2004, and October 15, 2004. PBS estimated audience numbers based on Nielsen Research data provided to PEJ.
Average Viewership of the Presidential Debates, 2004
Average viewership of three debates
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Data for commerical broadcast and cable networks is Nielsen Research data as published in The Los Angeles Times on October 2, 2004, October 12, 2004, and October 18, 2004. PBS estimated audience numbers based on Nielsen Rsearch data provided to PEJ.
Presidential Campaign News for Television Viewers
By political party
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, ’’Kerry Support Rebounds, Race Even Again,’’ September 16, 2004
*Among those who reported getting Presidential election campaign news on television. qu: ’’Do you get most of your news about the presidential election campaign from …’’
Where Young People Get Campaign News
Age 18 to 29, 2000 and 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political Network,’’ January 11, 2004
* Percent saying they ’’regularly’’ learn something from …

After enduring the critical and popular backlash of Election Night 2000, the networks demonstrated more caution in their projections of the race in 2004. They also had gone to a new polling operation to conduct their exit poll. The poll, however, was in its own way as flawed as four years earlier, overstating John Kerry’s ultimate official vote in some 26 states, and overstating George Bush’s in 4 others.46

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that on election night, all three networks outdrew any of the cable channels (though CBS and Fox News were not that far apart), a sign that when they actually do go head to head in coverage, the network brands still mean something more than cable news.

According to data from Nielsen Media Research and various press accounts, the commercial broadcast networks lost some 10 million viewers from Election Night 2000, down to 36 million in 2004 from 46 million.47 Meanwhile, the major cable networks, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC, picked up 6 million prime time viewers (17.2 million, up from 11.2), with Fox gaining the most.48 PBS gained another 600,000 over Election Night 2000, rising to 1.4 million viewers from 810,000).49 By this count, some three million viewers chose to do something else in 2004. Whether that was to watch entertainment shows, read to their kids, get even more detailed election news online or watch the live feeds on C-Span is unclear.

Election Night Viewership, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Unpublished Nielsen Research data. PBS estimated audience numbers based on Nielsen Research data provided to PEJ.

So was the campaign of 2004 a watershed for network news? More time must pass to answer that question. The networks are not quite honest about their reasoning in cutting back on the conventions, including abandoning entirely one night of each event. The exit poll problems also continue, and represent a continuing black eye. Yet the networks still make a commitment by pre-empting their programming for debates, inaugurations, election nights and more. They covered the 2004 election on their nightly news programs as much as or more than others in the recent past. But the networks have insisted for 20 years that they do not set the public agenda, they only follow it. In the past, the evidence suggested they were wrong. Now they may have succeeded, at least when it comes to the conventions, to making that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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