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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The cable news landscape is changing in ways that are more subtle than in previous years, and that hints at differences not only in the purpose of cable news but also the channels people go to at different times in different ways.

For 2006, four trends stand out:

  • The average audience of the three main cable news channels was declining.
  • The drops at Fox News were the largest of all and marked the first time the cable news leader had begun to bleed viewers.
  • But there were signs that the cumulative audience, or the number of different people in the course of a month who view cable news, was still growing. With average audience in decline, that would mean more people visited cable news occasionally but didn’t stay as long.
  • The growth in MSNBC and some individual programs on CNN Headline News seem to be associated with the rise of even sharper opinions in prime time, and the declines at Fox News raise questions about whether its longtime evening lineup is losing some of its appeal.
  • Relative to each other, the three cable news channels performed according to type. Fox News remained well ahead of the competition again. While CNN managed to attract the largest share of unique viewers and did better during big events, Fox News dominated in the number of eyeballs watching at any given moment. MSNBC, meanwhile, stayed in third place, though with new managers at the helm there was some improvement in its performance, compared to previous years

But with subscribers reaching a plateau, viewership among the three main channels is declining. And with more competition from the Web, PDA’s, phones and more (see Digital) the trends of 2006 are only likely to continue.

The Three Types of News on Cable

The journalism on the cable news channels, the analyst Andrew Tyndall suggests, serves three distinct sets of needs.1

The first is News on Demand, updating the latest headlines available at any time during the 24-hour news cycle.

The second is Crisis Coverage, wall-to-wall, comprehensive, on-the-scene, constantly updated journalism on a handful of essential stories that occur each year — Katrina, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Clinton impeachment, or the undecided election.

The third is Prime-time Personality, News & Opinion Programming, the evening shows that include a mix of nightly-newscast-style headlines, opinionated commentary, newsmaker interviews, analysis and true-crime celebrity programming. These are the shows that Fox News and others have made into distinctive programs, not tied to breaking news, that people arrange their schedule to watch, so-called appointment viewing.

A close look at which cable audience numbers are declining, and at which times — dayparts, to use industry jargon — reveals the different patterns of how people are now beginning to use cable.

Common sense suggests that news on demand would be the kind of coverage most vulnerable to the rise of the Internet, PDAs and other technologies for instant headlines. Indeed the declines in 2006 in the most basic numbers — average audience — seem to confirm that.

But the audience data suggest something more. The audiences for prime-time news and opinion programming dropped even more than daytime, a sign that it’s not just news on demand that is losing its appeal. Some prime-time opinion and personality programming on CNN and even more on Fox News may be losing sway.

The audience for crisis coverage — long cable’s biggest draw in raw numbers — is harder to discern from 2006. The numbers were not strong compared with other years, but it may be that the crises of 2006 simply did not command the kind of interest of previous ones.

And the problems at Fox News, new this year, appear to be across the board, hinting that the news channel may be facing its first significant signs of getting middle aged.

For all that, if a fourth channel, CNN Headline News, is thrown into the mix, the message becomes slightly more nuanced. Its audience grew substantially in 2005, putting it within arm’s reach of MSNBC. But in 2006, despite the gains of one notable prime-time program, the news channel over all saw viewership decline.

Cable Audiences: Viewership Declines

By the most basic measure, average audience each month, the viewership for the main three news channels collectively in 2006 was down in both dayparts.2

Cable news viewership can be measured in two different ways to arrive at an average monthly audience. The first is “median,” which measures the most typical audience number each month. The industry tends to use a different measure, “mean,” which creates a simple average from each day’s total. We report both here, though we believe mean tends to exaggerate the effect of big stories and thus is less accurate than median (see sidebar on measuring the audience). By both measures, however, the numbers for the three main channels were not good.

Using median, the most typical audience, the prime-time audience for the three cable channels together suffered an 8% decline in 2006.

In viewers, that means 2.5 million people were watching cable news during prime time in 2006, down from 2.7 million in 2005. A year earlier, 2004, prime-time audience was up 4% from 2003.

While we had noted previously that the pace of audience growth in cable had fallen sharply since 2003, this was the first time in six years that there was an actual decline.

Cable News Prime Time Audience
1998 – 2006, Channels Combined
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

The trend in daytime viewership was similarly negative. Daytime median audience for all three channels fell 4% in 2006, to 1.5 million viewers, down from 1.6 million in 2005. A year earlier, daytime median audience had risen by 3%.

Calculating cable news viewership for 2006 based on the mean, as the cable channels do, paints an even bleaker picture

Cable News Daytime Audience
1998 – 2006, Channels Combined
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

The mean prime-time audience for all three channels combined fell by 12%, to 2.50 million, down from 2.84 million the year before. A year earlier, prime audience was essentially flat, growing less than a percent.

In daytime, the mean audience fell 11% in 2006, to 1.54 million, down from 1.73 million in 2005. A year earlier, the mean daytime audience had grown 7%.

Deeper probing into the different ways of calculating reveals still more clues about why the audience is down.

For instance, the fact that the declines in median audience were greater at night, when the opinion- and personality-driven programming are on, reinforce the idea that cable’s problems go deeper than just people gravitating to other sources for breaking news.

And the greater drop in mean, the measurement more sensitive to audience spikes, supports the idea that the channels enjoyed less of a bounce in 2006 from crisis coverage than in years past.

Cable News Prime Time Audience Growth
1998 – 2006, by Channel
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

2006: Channel by Channel

The losses in viewership, however, were not consistent across the three main channels. Fox News, the only channel that was gaining in years past, began to lose audience, and did so at the steepest rate of all. MSNBC, in turn, began to gain.

The Fox News Channel

Fox News remains the cable leader, but for the first time since its launch, it saw losses in viewership year-to-year. What’s more, the drop was consistent across the course of the year and across the dayparts, as well as being sharper than its competitors.

From January to December 2006, Fox News’s median prime-time viewership fell by 14%. That was in sharp contrast to the year before, when it was the only cable news channel to see an increase (9%). The story was repeated in daytime, when its median viewership dropped 12% in 2006. A year earlier it had grown 5%.

If we look at the mean, things don’t change for the better. Fox News saw almost equal declines in the two dayparts, 16% in prime time and 15% in daytime.

Indeed, comparing the number of viewers in 2006 to 2005, Fox News saw a decline in virtually every month, with the greatest gap in the latter half of the year (incidentally, when the big stories of 2006 took place).

Fox News Viewers
2006 vs. 2005

Month Change in mean prime-time audience Change in mean daytime audience

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

If one accepts the notion that daytime is more a period for news on demand, and the evening more a time for personality and opinion programming, Fox News appears to be suffering equally in both kinds of news.

That raises several possibilities. Fox News could be losing viewers to other cable channels (some MSNBC and Headline News programs are growing). Or some of its viewers could be gravitating to other media. And in fact the declines in both dayparts suggest that the problem may be some of both.

Some analysts, such as Andrew Tyndall, also raise the question whether Fox News aligned itself too closely with Bush Administration and the Republican Party. If so, it could be suffering a backlash as the political winds change.

Or it may be in part an age problem; the Fox shows may have become familiar. The lineup in prime time has not changed appreciably in recent years. If that is the problem, then just as CNN began to do in the late 1990s, Fox News may find that it has reached a peak with its current programming and begin to re-imagine some of its shows (something CNN has continued to struggle with).

It also may be that its competitors, notably MSNBC and Headline News, have found ways to finally begin to chip away at some of Fox News’s audience.

Whatever the causes, if the declines continue, they may be compounded by something else: both CNN and MSNBC have more popular Web sites. That could draw even more breaking-news audiences away (see Digital).3

For all this, of course, one should not lose sight of the fact that Fox News remains the dominant channel, both in terms of overall audience and individual shows.

In 2006, more than half the people watching cable news were watching Fox News (as they have since 2001).

The mean audience for Fox News in prime time was 1.4 million in 2006. That is more than triple the viewership of MSNBC (378,000) and almost double that of CNN (739,000). More than half (55%) of all viewers watching prime-time cable news in 2006 were tuned into Fox News.

During the day, 54% of the viewers watching the three main cable news channels were tuned to Fox, again about double CNN and more than triple MSNBC. Fox News averaged 824,000 viewers, against 472,000 for CNN and 244,000 for MSNBC.

By program, Fox News had nine of the top 10 shows, according to Nielsen rankings.4 Only CNN’s Larry King broke that monopoly at No. 7. The “O’Reilly Factor” was again the most-watched show on cable news, averaging 2 million viewers a night.

The Top 10 Cable News Shows
December 2006

Channel Average Audience (in 000s)
The O’Reilly Factor
Fox News
Hannity & Colmes
Fox News
On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteran
Fox News
The Fox Report w/ Shepard Smith
Fox News
Special Report w/ Brit Hume
Fox News
The O’Reilly Factor (repeat)
Fox News
Larry King Live
The Big Story w/ John Gibson
Fox News
Studio B w/ Shepard Smith
Fox News
Your World w/ Neil Cavuto
Fox News

Source: Nielsen Media Research figures at
Note: average audience figures reflect all persons ages 2 and up (P2+)

At CNN, meanwhile, viewership declined as well in 2006. The median figures show a fall that was not as steep as in 2005. It saw a loss of 2% in prime-time median viewership from January to December 2006, far better than the 11% loss in 2005.

CNN’s daytime median viewership was actually up 6% from the year before, in contrast to the decline at Fox News, and better than last year, when it lost 7% of its daytime viewers.

Looking at the numbers using mean, CNN executives have more cause for concern. The channel saw a drop of 12% in average prime-time viewership and about the same decline, 10%, in its average daytime audience.

Even with the drop in overall prime-time audience, some shows did see gains. “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” for instance, grew 30% in the fourth quarter of 2006, while Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer’s shows saw 15% and 18% growth.5 Those shows fared even better among viewers 25 to 54 years old, whom advertisers covet. Dobbs grew 57% in the 25-to-54 demographic in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared to same period in 2005. “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” was up 50% and “Anderson Cooper 360” was up 24% in the same audience age range (See News Investment).6


If Fox News’s declines were one major change in the cable news landscape, the other big shift came at MSNBC, where viewership by any measure grew in both daytime and prime time in 2006.

The channel’s prime-time median viewership figures rose 7% in 2006 compared with a loss of 2% the year before.

It performed equally well during the day. Daytime median viewership grew 7% in 2006, building on the 3% rise in daytime in 2005.

The metric the industry tends to use, mean, also showed growth at MSNBC. Its average prime-time audience was up by 3%. In daytime, there was 1% growth.

What factors are working in the channel’s favor? Could MSNBC be benefiting from a change of guard or changes in programming, or was it simply a matter of having news to report?

One potential explanation is greater synergy with NBC News — many top-rung NBC anchors appeared on the channel for election coverage, with favorable results. Top executives say they plan to continue such sharing of talent. Synergy is also expected to increase with the physical shift of the MSNBC operations to NBC News’s New York headquarters from New Jersey (see News Investment). MSNBC executives also believe that the changing political climate in the country is helping the channel. Phil Griffin, an NBC News vice president, was quoted in Variety as saying, “The mood has changed and people are looking for a different kind of coverage.”

One prime example of cashing in on the changing political climate is Keith Olbermann’s show, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” (8 p.m. ET). Olbermann’s is one MSNBC program that has bucked the general trend and increased its key demographic audience in 2006. Compared with the same quarter a year earlier, Olbermann saw a 67% rise among viewers 25 to 54 in the fourth quarter of 2006 (also see News Investment) and a 60% rise in the overall audience.7

The steady audience numbers also could help MSNBC’s position on the company ladder as NBC Universal begins its re-structuring and digital initiative in 2007 (see Ownership). Yet all this needs to be kept in context. MSNBC still lags well behind its two chief rivals and is even challenged by CNN’s second network, Headline News.

CNN Headline News

In 2005, as we reported last year, CNN’s sister channel, Headline News, began to emerge out of the cable news shadows and to rival MSNBC in viewership.

In 2006, some of its momentum seems to have waned. Despite the launch of an edgy prime-time conservative talk show that saw big gains, Headline News’ overall prime-time and daytime viewership declined slightly. Its mean prime-time audience was 302,000 in 2006, down 2% from the year before. That left it further behind MSNBC’s 378,000.

In daytime, the channel averaged 218,000 viewers, a much steeper decline, 11% compared with 2005. Here, it is still shy of MSNBC but closer, at 244,000.

The drop in daytime viewers, which was as bad as the drops at CNN or Fox News, may speak to the declining news-on-demand appeal of cable. Those are the hours when Headline News follows it traditional wheel format of headlines only every half hour.

CNN Headline News
Average Audience

Year Prime time Viewers Daytime Viewers

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

In prime time, its decline was not as steep as its sister CNN (12%) or Fox News (16%). That is due at least in part to the success of some of the channel’s opinionated prime-time shows, particularly among young audiences.

At the front of that group is Glenn Beck, a former conservative talk radio personality, who anchors from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily. His show grew 119% overall in audience and more than tripled (up 165%) among 25-to-54-year-olds in the fourth quarter of 2006.

Beck is up against some of cable news’ bigger shows (Fox News’s “Fox Report” with Shepard Smith, MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews and CNN’s “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer). But their fourth quarter gains in audience were no more than 20%.8 Beck stands out, in part, because he may be among the most pugnacious conservatives on cable TV, and ideological edge, particularly from the right, is a new identity for Headline News.

Beck’s show is actually the second most popular Headline News show. In first place is the legal talk show “Nancy Grace” (8 p.m. ET). Grace, a lawyer, began making audience inroads when she went on the air in 2005.

Her performance in 2006 was more complicated. The show’s overall audience declined 16% in the fourth quarter while its audience in the 25 to 54 demographic grew 8% (see News Investment).9 That might have something to do with competition – MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann airs at the same time and he’s been seeing huge gains among both the 25-to-54-year-olds and over all audience. The drop also came, among other things, as Grace became embroiled in controversy when one of her guests committed suicide after a Grace interview.

Headline News is also attracting viewers in the morning. Its morning show “Robin & Company,” hosted by Robin Meade, has seen a ratings surge, especially among the younger demographic. According to CNN, the show’s ratings in October 2006 showed a 71% increase from the previous year among people 18 to 34. Further, “Robin & Company” gets about 90% of all viewer response to Headline News’s daytime shows, most of which is positive.10

Cumulative Audience

Another method cable networks use to measure their audience is “Cume,” short for cumulative audience. The term refers to the number of different individual (“unique”) viewers who watch a channel over a fixed period. Viewers are counted as part of a TV channel’s Cume measurement if they tune in for six minutes or longer (they are typically calculated over the course of a month). Like average audience, Cume is measured by Nielsen Media Research.

CNN has historically led in terms of Cume and used the to leverage itself to advertisers — arguing that advertisers can reach a greater number of different consumers through its channel over time, even though its average audience lags significantly behind that of Fox News.

This year, CNN, which provides the Project with data on Cume, released figures only for the final month of the year. According to those numbers, at least, CNN continues its lead.

But the trend lines, again, are strongest for MSNBC. It grew about 27% in December 2006, year-to-year. CNN’s sister channel, Headline News, was next, with a 24% growth in Cume audience.

Cable News Cumulative Audience
Number of Unique Viewers (in 000’s)

Channel December 2006 December 2005
Fox News
Headline News

Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN

The Cume numbers also reveal something else. Cume was growing — at least in December. Indeed, all four channels had a higher cume in December 2006 than in 2005. This stands in stark contrast to the average audience trends.

If the December numbers are typical, they suggest that more people tune in to the cable channels now than a year ago, but are not staying as long. It may also say something about the nature of the major news events of 2006 in contrast with years past — the so-called crisis coverage component of cable journalism. That question deserves a closer look.

Crisis Coverage: The Big Stories of 2006

What is happening with crisis coverage on cable?

As noted above, the steeper declines seen in mean audience (as distinct from median) suggest that the cable channels benefited less from crisis coverage in 2006 than in years past.

Over the last decade, the cable channels saw their growth stimulated by major crises. Viewers would come for the big events — often in huge numbers — and many of them would begin to watch the channels more afterwards. Are cable channels now also losing sway in this area? Or was 2006 somehow a slower news year than in years past?

One way to examine those questions is to take the big months of the year, when coverage spiked because of major news events, and compare these spikes to the ones registered during previous crises.

In 2006, the big stories were the summertime crisis in the Middle East in July and August and the mid-term elections in November. (The Middle East crisis overlapped with another major event, the foiled terrorist plot to bomb American planes in London.)

The Middle East crisis and the terrorist threats led to a surge in cable news viewers in August. CNN saw its August 2006 prime-time audience up 19% and its daytime audience up nearly 40% compared with August 2005. The month also saw it generate the largest number of total viewers in the year. MSNBC’s prime-time audience grew just 4% (although daytime was up 36%) compared with August 2005. Fox News actually saw a 29% dip in prime-time viewership, while daytime viewers grew 5%.

November, the month of the mid-term elections, saw no such spikes. There was little growth in viewership in the three channels over November the year before — growing only 10% over October 2006 in prime time, even though the election occurred in the second week of the month and, given the dramatic results, carried on with coverage for weeks after that. In daytime, the channels actually lost about 1% of their viewers.

Compare that to the spikes registered in earlier years. In August 1998, when video of President Bill Clinton’s deposition before a grand jury was released, cable news registered a 71% spike in both daytime and prime-time viewers from the previous month. The hanging-chad elections in November 2000 that ultimately brought George W. Bush to power had everyone riveted to the cable news channels — and registered 91% growth in prime-time viewers and 156% growth in daytime compared to the month before.

Cable News Audience during Big Events
1998 – 2006, Channels Combined, Prime-time Viewers
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Figures reflect average viewers in respective months

What to make of the smaller spikes in 2006?

Of course it is impossible to conclusively compare different news events in different years. Some analysts, such as Andrew Tyndall and the former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer, believe that the crises of 2006 were simply not as compelling, as news events, as those of other recent years. That is certainly possible, perhaps even likely. A mid-term election and a Mid-East crisis may not be news on the same magnitude for Americans as Katrina, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein or September 11.

Nonetheless, given the other declines in 2006 and the growing range of options Americans have for news, it is also possible that the spikes in cable viewership from major events may just become smaller. It’s a question that deserves monitoring.

The Demographics of the Cable News Audience

Who is watching Cable News? Over all, the typical cable news viewer is likely to be male and middle-aged (mean age of 48 years) with a college education.

There are some variations by channel. The average Fox News viewer is about 48 years old as well and earns a higher income, while the average CNN viewer is a year younger, and more likely to have a lower income. The MSNBC viewer is likely to be younger still, but with a better income than CNN. We provide a more complete profile of the cable news audience, and what the demographics might signify, in the Public Attitudes sub-chapter.


1. Adding up viewers of all three networks in 2004 for both prime time and daytime gave us 5.35 million viewers. The same calculation in 2005 resulted in 5.50 million viewers (Nielsen Media Research data for January to December 2004 and January to December 2005).

2. Annual figures until August 2005 showed a .3% decline in daytime audience and 6% growth in prime time. In September, however, daytime audiences shot up by 12%, while prime time rose by 8%. By December 2005, the daytime average leveled out to 7%, while prime time fell to .2%. Thus, Katrina led to a sharp increase in averages for September, and when the story died down, the averages dipped back down. The dip was especially steep for prime time averages. (Source: Nielsen Media Research)

3. Between 2000 and 2004, Fox News extended its reach on cable systems by almost 40 million subscribers. CNN, which had reached its distribution potential (already carried on most cable systems), gained only 10 million more potential subscribers over those four years.

4. In 2004, CNN averaged 15 million more unique viewers per month than Fox News. Cume is based on mean average, not median, but the fact that CNN leads each month does suggest that its advantage here is not based just on big stories. (Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN)

5. CNN posted steep viewer losses during the month of February 2005, slipping 21% in prime time and 16% in daytime. It even lost in the key 25-54 demographic to third-place MSNBC during the speech. That, however, could be accounted for by the fact that the audience watching the State of the Union address is heavily Republican and inclined toward Fox News. The pattern was repeated during the State of the Union Address in 2006 — Fox News had the highest viewership among all the cable channels. See Michael Learmonth, “CNN Flops in February as Fox News Surges,” Daily Variety, March 2, 2005. Also see Michael Learmonth, “Fox Nets Record Aud for Prexy Speech: State of the Union address draws in 6.46 million viewers,” Daily Variety, February 1, 2006.

6. Fox News recorded 87 million unique visitors that month while MSNBC had 69 million. (Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN)

7. Survey data about Katrina reinforce the Cume data. A Pew poll in September found that 31% of Americans said they were “getting most” of their “news about the disaster” from CNN, while 22% cited Fox, 9% MSNBC. CNN, then, alone commanded nearly the same percentage as all the three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, combined (network news got 34% while local news got 19%). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Two in three critical of Bush’s relief efforts,” Pew Research Center , September 8, 2005 . (Respondents could cite more than one news source) Online at:

8. Toni Fitzgerald, “CNN Headline News topples MSNBC,” Media Life Magazine, March 31, 2005.

9. This report separates the two CNN channels in audience analysis because Nielsen Media Research, which aggregates data on audience figures, provides figures for each channel individually.

10. Toni Fitzgerald, “CNN Headline News topples MSNBC,” Media Life Magazine, March 31, 2005.

11. “Desperate No More? Networks See a Rebound in Viewers,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2005 . Wolzien has since left the investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Company Inc., to semi-retire and start a consulting practice, Wolzien LLC. John Eggerton, “Wolzien Exiting Sanford Bernstein”, Broadcasting & Cable, July 15, 2005 .

12. “Cable and VCR Households,” TV Basics: Online Brochure, Media Trends Track, Research Central, Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) Web site.

13. Mike Tierney, “Fox now the big dog in cable news — and growing,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 9, 2005 .

14. See 2005 Annual Report: Cable TV, Content Analysis (‘Differences among cable channels’).

15. Ibid.

16. See 2004 and 2005 Annual Reports.