Getting a handle on the economics of the network news divisions is among the most challenging areas of assessing the health of the news media. The networks do not release revenue data for their news divisions, let alone for any news programs in particular, and have not done so for years.
Estimates from the press are also elusive. The news divisions are in part sub-units of their broadcast networks, which in the case of NBC and ABC are now sub-units of television divisions of larger multimedia conglomerates. At the same time all three news divisions are attempting to maximize video revenues from new-media platforms that are independent of broadcast television.
Some market research firms estimate how much broadcast ad revenue each network news division brings in. The best known of these is TNS. But these estimates, insiders say, often do not reflect actual revenues.
TNS takes the networks’ advertising rate cards and estimates revenue based on how many advertisements air on each newscast. While widely used in the industry, there are several reasons they may be off. Advertisers may buy time across multiple platforms or even television channels owned by the same parent company. There is no way of knowing what discounts may be applied to the ad buys. Nor do the estimates account for the commission networks may pay to advertising agencies. Not infrequently, TNS estimates suggest that lower-rated programs bring in more money than higher rated ones.
Still, the TNS data offer a starting point, from which we can extrapolate some more precise estimates based on private discussions with those more familiar with network economics.
TNS estimated that CBS pulled in just over $180 million in ad revenue for its morning and evening news programs through the first six months of 2009. Extrapolating that number, which is probably high, and consulting with network officials and market analysts, PEJ estimates that CBS News brought in revenue of about $400 million in 2009, including 60 Minutes, Sunday Morning and Face the Nation. That number is down substantially from our estimates of last year that were closer to $500 million. PEJ estimates the news division is not operating in the black.
At ABC, TNS estimates for the first six months put the network’s morning and evening daily news programs at $253 million. Again, that rate card analysis might be high. Extrapolating from conversations with industry insiders, PEJ estimates ABC News revenue over all, including 20/20 in prime time, Nightline in late night and This Week on Sunday mornings, at about $600 million for the year. That number, too, is down from last year’s estimate of closer to $700 million. The news division, we estimate, could claim to generate a small operating profit in 2009, as it has in years past, though doing so required cost cutting in 2009 and drastic cuts in 2010 that amount to what David Westin, the president of ABC News, called a “fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner of the enterprise.”
NBC News by all estimates is the leader in revenue. It remained No. 1 in evening news and morning news (Today) and Sunday political talk shows during the year.1 The morning program also produces more hours than its competitors. According to television professionals, being the ratings leader in a time slot for news traditionally translates into an additional premium for advertising rates of roughly 10% for those shows. NBC makes less from magazines than its rivals, given that Dateline is down to one hour a week and that the program suffered ratings declines during the year. TNS estimated revenue for NBC’s morning and evening programs for the first six months of $313 million for just morning and evening news.
Extrapolating that for the full year, and accounting for all NBC News programs, PEJ estimates NBC News broadcast revenues in the neighborhood of $800 million for 2009, the lion’s share from morning news, followed by evening. That is down slightly from the year before, we estimate.
But NBC News’ revenues are the most complicated to estimate. The news division’s properties include more than just broadcasting. There is also MSNBC, the cable news channel; CNBC, the financial cable channel; and the Weather Channel. While resources are shared across channels, allowing some discretion in how costs are accounted, most agree that cable now represents more than half of the revenues of NBC News. Cable news now generates more revenue for NBC News than broadcast, and the largest single share comes from the financial news channel, CNBC. The reason is that cable channels have those two revenue sources, subscription fees as well as advertising. This allows cable to generate far more revenue per viewer than broadcast.
The market research firm SNL Kagan estimates that in 2009, the MSNBC cable news had revenues of $368 million, and CNBC had $663 million. That would put NBC News revenue over all in the neighborhood of $1.8 billion in 2009.
And the lion’s share of that, by this accounting close to 60%, now comes from cable, particularly CNBC.
What does that mean in terms of pre-tax profits? In March of 2009, the New York Times’ Bill Carter, citing unnamed NBC News executives, reported that NBC News various components supplied about 13 percent of the overall profit of its parent company, NBC Universal.2 That would have amounted to a profit of about $400 million in 2008 from news.
NBC Universal profits fell by more than 25% in 2009, according to the company’s SEC filings, but the New York Times reported in February 2010 that profits from NBC News were flat, thus the percentage of the company’s profits from news in 2009 would have grown.3 It is possible that roughly 18% of NBC Universal’s profit came from news in 2009.
Those numbers bring into stark relief the reality of the broadcasting business, at least one that is not built into a model of news that is blended with cable.
“In broadcast television, we are competing against a business model,” said one network executive. “Our evening newscast beats all the cables combined at 6:30 and even in prime time. But we don’t have those subscription fees.”
1. The highly rated CBS Sunday Morning magazine program is not included in this comparison of Sunday morning political talk shows on network television — Meet the Press (NBC), Face the Nation (CBS) and This Week (ABC).
2. Bill Carter, “NBC Is Buoyed by a Matrix of Winners,” New York Times, March 8, 2009.
3. Brian Stelter and Bill Carter, “News Units at ABC and CBS Try to Navigate Uncertain Times,” New York Times, February 28, 2009.