< Audiences Returning to Network TV News

Transcript

Friday, October 28, 2011

 [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

For years network news has steadily lost viewers, but rumors of its death appear to be greatly exaggerated. New Nielsen ratings show a sudden spike in viewership, the first in a decade.

 

NewsLab’s executive director Deborah Potter says several factors may be contributing to the uptake, not least of which was the newsiness of the past year.

DEBORAH POTTER:

Japanese earthquake, tornadoes, the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden, not to mention the kind of news that affects people daily, and that is the continuing economic struggles of Americans. So there are sort of good news-driven reasons for people to be watching more news.

 

The other possibility is that people are spending less doing other things.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

You know, we used to say one of the problems in the evening news space was the time of day it was on, that a lot of people were not yet home from work or perhaps they were out to dinner. Well, when you’ve got an economy in the trench like this, a lot of people don't have jobs, so they're already home.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The unemployed are pushing up the ratings.

DEBORAH POTTER:

It could be. It could be a part of it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It didn't gain just a little. The three evening newscasts added almost two million viewers combined in the second quarter, compared to the same period last year.

DEBORAH POTTER:

Yes, and that's about a 10 percent increase, so that’s a major jump that's quite noticeable when you look at the declining trend from previous years. And the, the network morning shows saw similar uptick. They added a little over one million viewers, about 10 percent.

 

So, you know, it’s too soon, I think, to call it a trend, but I do think it's worth paying attention to. And I guarantee you the people at the network news divisions are doing just that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Who are these people who are tuning in?

DEBORAH POTTER:

For the evening newscasts, the average viewer is over 60. But all three of the network newscasts this year added viewers in a – an age group that advertisers love, 25 to 54, the people who typically, we’re told, just don't watch network news.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What do you think accounts for this?

DEBORAH POTTER:

The fact that we had some turnover at the network news level this year, that is always an occasion for sampling. People will watch a new anchor. And they did.

 

The other thing we’ve seen are some changes in the approach of the three newscasts. You know, it used to be said that you could turn on any nightly newscast on any given night and see the same news stories, in the same order. That’s not true anymore.

 

In fact, I think three newscasts are taking on  distinct personalities, which means they’re giving viewers a choice, which viewers didn't feel they had in recent years.

 

The flavor, the tenor of the cable news channels also has changed, and that may be one additional factor for the return of viewers to the network evening newscasts. It's one thing to turn on the news during the day and find out what's going on. It’s another to turn on the news during the day and find out that Steve Jobs is still dead two days later.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

You know, the, the – the sort of concentration on - of the flogging of one story, I would argue, diminish the value of those cable outlets as real sort of news updaters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So cable news ceases to provide the kind of news competition it used to offer?

DEBORAH POTTER:

If, in fact, you thought you were going to tune in and get an update on the news on one of the cable channels, you would either get, today, overhyping of one or two stories for hours on end or a lot of political points of view, certainly at that evening hour when the when the, when the networks are on.

 

What perhaps has happened is that the viewer had all these other sources. They went out and sampled them for a long, long time and then found themselves drifting back to a place where they could get what’s always been there, you know, a nice nightly update of what’s happened and what's important in the world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So then the natural question follows:  Will they be heading back to the newspapers, maybe not paper newspapers but ones online perhaps?

DEBORAH POTTER:

Clearly, there's a strong belief that news and information remains a commodity that people care about. People have written off the network newscasts for years, dead, buried, dusty, ancient audience, all of that.

 

And, and the fact is their audience is and remains huge compared to the cable channels. Four times as many people will watch the nightly news on the broadcast channels as watch the three all-news channels in all of prime time.

 

So I often say that the network newscasts remind me of of that guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you know, at the end where –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]

 

DEBORAH POTTER:

- they're going around collecting up the plague victims, “Bring out your deads.” They grab one fellow who says, “I’m not dead yet!”

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

I don't think they’re dead either.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Deborah, thank you very much.

DEBORAH POTTER:

My pleasure, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Deborah Potter is the founder and executive director of NewsLab.