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Cable TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In a difficult time for media in general, the situation in cable news is now firmly split.

Fox News, by our reckoning, is growing on nearly all fronts. CNN’s situation is more complicated, though not as bleak as some might think. MSNBC remains on shaky ground.

At the same time, there are signs that the industry overall is beginning to mature, and that the kind of information cable offers may have trouble competing with what citizens can find online.

For the third straight year, our content analysis of cable suggests that it is thinly reported, suffers from a focus on the immediate, especially during the day, is prone to opinion mongering and is easily controlled by sources who want to filibuster. All of these raise questions about whether cable news will suffer if audiences begin to feel more comfortable with video and text on news websites as a substitute for getting instant news on television.

The audience picture for cable is complex. By the measures the cable channels use — simple averages — all the cable news audience was basically flat in 2005. By the method we prefer— looking at median audience — Fox News is still gaining, while CNN and MSNBC continue to lose audience. But when one looks at Cume — the number of unique or different viewers who tune in over the course of a month — CNN remains the cable news leader. That means its pool of viewers is larger, but they watch less often.

Financially, CNN remains the industry leader, thanks in part to a strong brand and more operations, but Fox News is catching up, and is likely to keep doing so. MSNBC, on the other hand, trails and the departure of Microsoft as part owner leaves the future further up in the air.

Fox News’ strength is also evident in terms of who is building their channel. For the second year in a row, it will add to how much it spends on its programming by almost a quarter, while MSNBC is cutting, and CNN is building more modestly.

The bigger question may involve the migration of news consumers online. While all three channels have well-established web sites, and are trying to create a common experience between the two outlets, the question is whether they can convert their brands as places to go for news instantaneously as well as for depth. This is more so given that older media, including newspapers and the old networks, appear to be accelerating their efforts at offering news in real time.