|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
What do they think?
While Americans certainly rely on cable news, how do they feel about what they see there? Is it cable’s convenience that draws them? Or do they prefer its content and style, which involves more talk and live reports, over network broadcast and local TV news? Do they like the news agenda of cable, which focuses on a handful of stories each day and relies largely on wires for the rest? Or is it the hosts and personalities that motivate them to watch?
The answers will reveal something about how vulnerable cable will be to competition from new technologies such as the Internet to be the news medium of choice for major breaking news or daily headlines.
To begin with, the majority of Americans (67%) view cable news favorably, while just 18% have an unfavorable view. A Pew Research survey in June 2005 found that among those viewing it favorably, 23% held a “very favorable” view of cable news, while 44% were “mostly favorable.”1
Do Americans notice the ways in which what’s on cable news differs from what’s on broadcast news? More could be known about this, but there is some evidence to sort through.
For some people, a perceived difference may be cable’s appeal, but it’s hard to discern. What we do know is that heading into 2005, the public considered cable news about as credible as the broadcast network news divisions, though that is largely due to network news’s losing ground rather than cable’s gaining.2
Of the three channels, Americans rate CNN as the most believable, according to the 2004 data. But CNN’s scores were falling while Fox News’s were steadier. Just over a quarter of Americans (29%) gave CNN the highest ratings for believability, according to data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. That was a drop of 12 points from CNN’s historic high in 1993. Fox, meanwhile, got the highest marks for believability from 21% of those polled, its highest ever. MSNBC’s believability also was dropping, to 18%.
Those numbers, however, are from June 2004. New data are expected in 2006, and the landscape may well have changed, reflecting the growth of Fox News in ratings and even Cume.
CNN’s appeal seems to be based on different elements than that of Fox News. CNN’s big spikes during major breaking news events such as Katrina, followed by the loss of that audience during less intense news periods, suggest that its appeal may lie in its bureaus and reporters around the world who can cover breaking news. Fox News’s higher ratings throughout its broadcast day suggest that it has succeeded far better in creating distinct programs and personalities that audiences want to watch. Moreover, the fact that its prime time lineup is built around talk, debate and analysis (in such programs as “The O’Reilly Factor,” “On the Record with Greta” and “Hannity & Colmes”) may imply that people are drawn to Fox News to help them put the news in order, to interpret it. By contrast, CNN’s move away from talk toward the on-scene reporting of Anderson Cooper and the rapid-fire coverage of “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer may suggest a continuation of its headline-oriented or news-driven approach. CNN has historically boasted only one program that has had significant, enduring and distinct program loyalty, “The Larry King Show,” which has an interview format and not that of a hard newscast.
Some of these questions and others would require more data to flesh out. For what reasons do some people choose cable over broadcast? If given the choice, head to head, on breaking news, which one would they choose? What are the reasons people say they gravitate to Fox News versus CNN? What do they think of MSNBC? Does a Web site matter to audiences as part of a cable brand? If people could imagine getting cable TV online and have the added power of choosing what stories to watch, would they prefer that more active approach? Or would they rather the cable channel do the choosing for them? This may shape where the three cable channels head and whether we will look back on cable as a transitional medium between broadcast and online, or whether it remains its own distinct form of TV journalism.
1. Survey by Pew Research Center conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, June 8- June 12, 2005 , and based on telephone interviews with a national adult sample of 1,464. The survey was conducted in association with The Project for Excellence in Journalism.
2. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004. Online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=215
3. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Part 1 – The 2005 Political Typology: Beyond Red vs. Blue in “Mapping the Political Landscape, 2005,” Pew Research Center. Online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=242
4. But the report also notes that liberals “and young, well-educated people generally” are turning away from TV news in favor of the Internet. Among those groups, the number relying on the Internet far exceeds any individual TV news source (network, cable, or local). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Part 1 – The 2005 Political Typology: Beyond Red vs. Blue in “Mapping the Political Landscape, 2005,” Pew Research Center, p.19
5. The numbers in the Pew data don’t add up to 100% because respondents could cite more than one news source. The total sample was 2,000 people, polled in December 2004.
6. Another interesting study released in 2005 was “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting,” conducted by Profs. Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan of the University of California at Berkeley . Using comprehensive data on voting, cable programming, and town-level demographics for 8,630 towns, they took the growing concerns about Fox News’s partisan coverage and sought to check whether such seeming media bias actually translated into changes in voter behavior. Keeping in mind the channel’s “fast expansion, geographical differentiation and widely perceived conservative slant,” they concluded that Fox News did not affect voting behavior: neither the vote share for Republicans nor turnout at the polls. In their own words, “one of the most dramatic shifts in media orientation… has had little or no effect on political outcomes.” Their results, they claim, are instead consistent with “rational filtering,” that is that the audience interprets media coverage rationally and is not swayed on average by media bias. The results were also said to support a form of “confirmatory bias,” i.e. in their consumption of news media, Republicans and Democrats reinforce their prior beliefs, as do the non-voters. Another explanation consistent with the study’s empirical results was the fact that Fox News influenced people’s beliefs but not their voting decisions. The actual decision was said to be a function of many other factors such as social identity, background, etc. Stefano DellaVigna & Ethan Kaplan, “Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting,” U.C. Berkeley, August 15, 2005. Retrieved from http://emlab.berkeley.edu/users/sdellavi/