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Sidebars & Backgrounders

Cable TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism


Sidebars and Backgrounders

Cable audiences during major news eventsSurvey data now suggest that the Internet has caught cable as the destination for breaking news. That may explain why the prime time hours, filled with talk shows and opinionated debate, have become the focus of the channels, and an increasingly important part of their identities.

But among the three main news channels, the ability to draw viewers during a breaking news event is still an indicator of a point of strength. Historically, CNN has held the reputation as the go-to channel when a disaster strikes, a scandal breaks, or votes are counted. Its ability to tap into a larger pool of viewers is further indicated by its dominance in cume audience — the number of unique viewers who tune in at least once for just a few minutes in a month. In all other audience measures, Fox News Channel is the clear leader.

An analysis of the cable viewership during breaking news events of 2009 indicates that Fox is now a solid competitor to CNN for this audience.

Cable News Viewership during Major Events
Event Channel Viewership
  CNN Fox News Channel MSNBC
Hudson River crash (3:30-6 p.m., 1/16) 1.73 million 2.38 million 766,000
U.S. Inauguration (11-2 p.m., 1/20) 6.94 million 4.44 million 2.57 million
Obama speech to Congress (9-10 p.m., 2/24) 5.05 million 5.02 million 2.75 million
Death of Michael Jackson (6-7 p.m., 6/25) 3.10 million 2.82 million 1.25 million
Ted Kennedy funeral (10-1:30 p.m., 8/29) 2.34 million 1.68 million 1.10 million
Balloon Boy hoax (3-5 p.m., 10/15) 1.74 million 2.43 million 768,000
Fort Hood shooting (3-7 p.m., 11/5) 1.33 million 2.60 million 624,000
Haiti earthquake (8-11 p.m., 1/12/10) 1.11 million 2.94 million 758,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research on and

During the year, a number of major events occurred that drew larger than normal audiences to cable. Some were political in nature, and planned, such as the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. Others were sudden and tragic, such as the shooting at Fort Hood in Texas by Army Sergeant Malik Nadal Hasan.

Among the cable news channels, CNN and Fox drew the biggest audiences in the hours immediately following the breaking of one of these stories. MSNBC trailed both channels by a large number of viewers in every case.

CNN tended to see the biggest audiences when there was an anticipated political event occurring. It was the audience leader during the inauguration ceremony, Obama’s first address to Congress and the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy. The one exception was when pop singer Michael Jackson died. In the 6 p.m. hour that day, CNN topped Fox by a relatively small margin.

By contrast, Fox News drew the biggest audiences during the unanticipated breaking news events. These included the nearly disastrous landing of a plane on the Hudson River, the Balloon Boy hoax, the shooting at Fort Hood, and the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

If Fox ultimately replaces CNN as the destination channel when a major news event is happening, it will mark yet another advantage for the channel, which has led in ratings for nearly a decade.

Online news videos

In 2009, more news consumers turned to the Web for video content. Nielsen Online reported in March 2009 that overall, the number of video streams was significantly higher than a year before, in March 2008. Near the top of the list, which was dominated by YouTube and, came The cable channel’s website ranked 10th overall, with 103.5 million video streams in that month, according to Nielsen., along with other cable news websites and, feature short, edited news packages on their sites. These clips are generally produced for television, and after they air, are embedded in the channel’s site. Viewers are exposed to a 15- or 30-second advertisement before the video begins.

Not all video news content is equal in the eyes of advertisers. Hard news, such as stories on foreign affairs, command a lower CPM than lifestyle content. The New York Times cited an feature called TodayMoms, sponsored by Wal-Mart, as an example of the kind of content that advertisers value.

The growing popularity of online news videos places television-based news organizations at an advantage to print-based ones. The costliness of producing video news content can be an inhibitor for newspapers or magazines, who wish to expand their online offerings but are dealing with shrinking budgets. CNN, MSNBC and Fox have an abundance of video content and the resources to stream live footage, whereas and must invest more than they are typically used to doing.

Nevertheless, text-based content draws Internet news consumers to a much greater extent than video-based content. This is a fact that may temper the ambitions of cable news websites as they strive to balance meeting consumer demand with the temptation to leverage their natural strengths as video content producers.

Leadership Directories staffing estimates
One rough proxy for cable news staff is to examine the numbers that the channels provide to Leadership Directories, an electronic database containing lists of key personnel in United States government, business, professional and nonprofit fields, including the news media.

These lists are self-reported by the channels. The people listed are all news people, including top management, staff assigned to various desks such as national, international, and medical, as well as national bureaus, and staff assigned to specific national programs, such as The Situation Room or Anderson Cooper 360. (It does not include technical, sales and promotional staff.)

In past years, PEJ has made use of the News Media Yellow Book, a quarterly released print version of Leadership Directories. The Web database is the electronic version of the Yellow Book.

Median vs. mean in audience measurementAudience trends in television can be measured using one of two calculations: median and mean.

This report offers the numbers in both forms.

The cable news channels prefer to calculate their year-to-year ratings by converting the Nielsen ratings data into annual “averages” using the mean. Academic advisers to the Project have persuaded us, however, that the median is a better indicator of core audience.

Here is why.

Mean, or simple average, is calculated by taking each month’s ratings, adding them together and dividing by the number of months. By that accounting, wild fluctuations in the audience due to occasional events can heavily influence the numbers.

Median examines all the monthly numbers in a year and identifies which one is most typical, or falls in the middle (the middle value).

Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies for the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, explains the choice of median rather than mean this way: The median is a better indicator of central tendency when there are extremely high or extremely low observations in the distribution. Those greatly influence the mean, but have little effect on the median. In other words, the median is the closest on the average to all of the scores in the distribution. Very high levels of cable viewing during a big event pull the mean too far away from realistic viewing scores. For that reason, the median is the better indicator of typical viewing levels.

For instance, in 2003, when the war in Iraq began, mean viewership numbers showed the cable news business booming — up 34% for daytime and 32% for prime time from the year before. But using the median, the middle value of the 12 months of that year, the picture that emerged was that cable viewership was basically stable. It showed no growth during the day and a gain of just 3% in prime time. How can that be? The reason is that cable news did not retain the audience that it gained during those first weeks of the war. Median was a better reflection of a year in which viewership spiked only for two months and then fell back down again.

In 2006, the median numbers actually meant better news for cable channels. Taking the average viewership for 2006 and comparing it to 2005 shows a significant decline in the cable news audience — down 11% for daytime and 12% for prime time. But using the median, there was a decline of just 4% during the day and 8% in prime time. Thus in times of major breaking news, mean can help the numbers. But in years when there are fewer major events, the mean will suffer. The spikes, when using mean, can cut both ways.

In short, our research team and the staff at the Pew Research Center believe the median is the fairest way to try to understand the core audience for cable, given the volatility of ratings spikes. The mean, or simple average, tends to be disproportionately inflated by the spikes and, consequently, also exaggerates any declines in cable audiences when those spikes do not occur. In contrast, median offers a truer sense of the core or base audience, those people who are watching day in and day out, without ignoring the cumulative effect of the size of the audience that gathers momentarily if extraordinary things happen.

The two revenue streams of cableCable TV channels generate revenue through two streams: advertising and subscriber fees.

Advertising makes up roughly half of the revenue the channels generate each year.

Cable news channels do not earn as much from advertisers as the broadcast networks or some sports or niche entertainment networks. In large part, this is because the ratings for cable news for any one program are fairly low. The ratings of the highest-rated cable show, Bill O’Reilly, are still only about a quarter of that of the lowest-rated evening network newscast, the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, for instance, and most cable programs are only a fraction of that.

In general, analysts view advertising as having greater potential than subscriptions for long-term growth. That is because it is harder to sign new cable subscribers, or get existing ones to pay substantially more each month for the cable bill, than to generate more ad revenue.

Ad revenues are the total number of ads sold, multiplied by the average number of viewers (in thousands), which is then multiplied by the CPM.

The other source of revenue is subscriber fees, also referred to as license fees.

The viability of subscriber fees as a strong area of future growth, though, may be threatened by the emergence of broadcast networks commanding costly retransmission fees. If cable operators must pay broadcast networks to carry their programming, the operators may then decide to keep the subscriber fees of smaller, niche cable channels — which draw smaller audiences than the networks — flat, or even reduce them.

The highest fees are typically paid for sports and general entertainment channels. The highest is the $3.77 per subscriber per month, commanded by ESPN.

If Fox’s audience is so much larger than CNN’s is, then why are the average license fees almost identical for these two channels? Part of the answer is that not all of Fox’s contract negotiations have fully kicked in. SNL Kagan projects that 2010 will be another year of much higher license fees for Fox as more contracts come into play. Second, CNN brings a “two channels for the price of one” advantage to the table. The fee for HLN is rolled into one single fee for the two channels.

Internet audience measurementMeasuring traffic on the Internet has become increasingly complicated. A number of methods have emerged, but no single methodology has been accepted as a standard.

Nielsen and comScore use a panel of Internet users to estimate total U.S. Internet traffic. Just as a telephone polls contact a sample of Americans, Nielsen and comScore contact a sample of Internet users who agree to share how they spend their time on the Web. Internet users who participate then download software on their computers that tracks their online visits without attaching any personally identifiable information to the traffic data to ensure anonymity.

Nielsen uses a random sample of Internet users by collecting its panel with telephone calls, the method used by most pollsters today. Achieving a random sample of participants for the panel is a key advantage. With a random sample, Nielsen can take the traffic data and more effectively generalize to U.S. population of Internet users as a whole. Nielsen runs two panels – one consisting of people at work and the other of people at home – for a combined total of 30,000 people.

Nielsen in 2008 began testing a product that tracks how television viewing and Web browsing interrelate. It combines existing Nielsen methods for measuring television viewership with Nielsen Online’s sample-based system for estimating Internet usage. During the year, NBC tested a system called Total Audience Measurement Index that was designed to measure and analyze traffic and viewership for the network’s Olympics broadcasts and webcasts.

ComScore recruits what it calls a convenience sample instead of a simple random sample by offering incentives to participants. ComScore then applies statistical methods to adjust, or weight the results to reflect the demographics of the actual online population.

For example, after it obtains traffic data from a panel, comScore analysts may discover they have a smaller percentage of males than the online population at large. They then add more results from males so that they are correctly represented. ComScore says this gives it an advantage because it uses more people (about 150,000) and maintains three panels – at work, at home and at universities — to ensure that the data capture how students are using the Internet differently from adults at home or at work.

Hitwise takes a wholly different approach. It does not gather data directly from individual computers as comScore and Nielsen do. Instead, it gets the data from Internet service providers (ISPs) who aggregate traffic data across all the individuals to whom they deliver Internet access. Hitwise provides ISPs with proprietary software that allows ISPs to analyze website usage logs created on their networks. To ensure the data is representative, Hitwise says it collects “from a geographically diverse range of ISP networks in metropolitan and regional areas, representing all types of Internet usage including home, work, educational and public access.” The sample of ISPs, however, is not a purely random one.

Hitwise feels its data offer some advantages. First, it reports data using specific website addresses (like ComScore and Nielsen report data that includes all related websites (like, a definition that can change over time. Hitwise data also put a premium on anonymity. Because it collects aggregate data, it never has access to the personal information of Internet users.

Different methodologies often result in different results, and that is the case here. Nielsen and comScore, for example, both rank Yahoo News,,, and AOL News as the four most-visited sites. Both rank AOL News as fourth. Hitwise, however, ranks AOL News as the 11th-most popular news site. While Hitwise ranks the Drudge Report as the 5th-most popular site, it does not register on the top 25 sites as listed by comScore or Nielsen.

Hitwise included a number of sites that are not generally regarded as traditional news sites and did not appear on the Nielsen or comScore lists. These include Yahoo Weather, Yahoo Local, and Both comScore and Hitwise listed some that Nielsen did not list, including the Weather Channel and Weather Underground. Nielsen did not include any of those websites in its categorization. According to Hitwise’s press office, differences materialize largely because of what the company categorizes as news.

Program schedule, CNN & HLN (February 2010)

6 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
7 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
8 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
9 a.m. CNN Newsroom Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
10 a.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
11 a.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
12 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
1 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
2 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
3 p.m. Rick’s List Headline News
4 p.m. Rick’s List Headline News
5 p.m. The Situation Room Prime News
6 p.m. The Situation Room Prime News
7 p.m. The Situation Room Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell
8 p.m. Campbell Brown Nancy Grace
9 p.m. Larry King Live The Joy Behar Show
10 p.m. Anderson Cooper 360 Nancy Grace replay
11 p.m. Anderson Cooper 360 Showbiz Tonight
Midnight Larry King Live replay The Joy Behar Show replay
1 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Nancy Grace replay
2 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Showbiz Tonight replay
3 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Headline News
4 a.m. Larry King Live replay Headline News
5 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Headline News

Source: Respective websites
Note: All times Eastern

Program schedule, Fox News Channel (February 2010)

Time Fox News
6 a.m. Fox & Friends
7 a.m. Fox & Friends
8 a.m. Fox & Friends
9 a.m. America’s Newsroom
10 a.m. America’s Newsroom
11 a.m. Happening Now
12 p.m. Happening Now
1 p.m. America Life with Megyn Kelly
2 p.m. America Life with Megyn Kelly
3 p.m. Studio B with Shepard Smith
4 p.m. Your World with Neil Cavuto
5 p.m. Glenn Beck
6 p.m. Special Report with Bret Baier
7 p.m. Fox Report with Shepard Smith
8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor
9 p.m. Hannity
10 p.m. On The Record with Greta Van Susteren
11 p.m. O’Reilly Factor (replay)
Midnight Hannity (replay)
1 a.m. On the Record (replay)
2 a.m. Glenn Beck (replay)
3 a.m. Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld
4 a.m. Special Report (replay)
5 a.m. O’Reilly Factor (replay)

Source: Fox News website
Note: All times Eastern

Program schedule, MSNBC (February 2010)

6 a.m Morning Joe
7 a.m. Morning Joe
8 a.m. Morning Joe
9 a.m. Daily Rundown
10 a.m. MSNBC Live
11 a.m. MSNBC Live
12 p.m. MSNBC Live
1 p.m. Andrea Mitchell Reports
2 p.m. MSNBC Live
3 p.m. MSNBC Live
4 p.m. The Dylan Ratigan Show
5 p.m. Hardball with Chris Matthews
6 p.m. The Ed Show
7 p.m. Hardball with Chris Matthews replay
8 p.m. Countdown with Keith Olbermann
9 p.m. The Rachel Maddow Show
10 p.m. Countdown (replay)
11 p.m. Rachel Maddow (replay)
Midnight Hardball (replay)
1 a.m. Countdown (replay)
2 a.m. Rachel Maddow (replay)
3 a.m. The Ed Show (replay)
4 a.m. Countdown (replay)
5 a.m. First Look/Way Too Early with Willie Geist (5:30 a.m.)

Source: MSNBC website
Note: All times Eastern