2011 was a turnaround year for network evening news programs, says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), in a March 2012 report, citing Nielsen Media Research data used under license. Viewership of the ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly evening newscasts all grew year-over-year, with 22.5 million people on average watching one of the three, up about 4.2% from 21.6 million in 2011. Additionally, close to one-quarter of the growth came from the 25-54 age group, with each newscast adding viewers from that demographic.
The PEJ suggests that the growth was in some part attributable to the abundance of big news events in 2011, including the Arab Spring, death of Osama bin Laden, Tucson shooting, UK royal wedding, and tsunami in Japan, noting that cable and local news audiences also grew.
The growth in evening newscast viewers is the first one experienced since 2001, when an average of 32.9 million viewers tuned in to one of the 3 commercial evening newscasts, up from 31.9 million in 2000. Despite 2011’s upswing, the overall trend is not positive: this means that since 2001, the newscasts have lost 28% of their viewers. Looking as far back as 1980, when an average of 52.1 million watched one of the newscasts, the trend is even more ominous: since then, these newscasts have dropped more than 54% of their viewers. The report also notes that past upticks, including the 9/11 attacks in 2011, have all been short-lived.
And although the 2012 elections might present room for audience growth, recent survey results from the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau indicate that cable TV networks might be the ones enjoying a political boost. According to the survey results, when asked to select which they prefer to receive information about national candidates and issues, voters overwhelmingly favored cable over broadcast for awareness (71% vs. 29%), keeping up to date (70% vs. 30%), and influencing their final voting decisions (72% vs. 28%). A separate survey from the Pew Research Center also showed this preference, as respondents ranked news networks as their top source of political campaign information, with 36% saying they regularly get their campaign news from this source, ahead of local TV news (32%) and network news (26%)
Meanwhile, the PEJ report reveals that CBS Evening News was the fastest-growing of the 3 commercial evening newscasts, picking up 325,000 viewers, or 5.8%, to 5.97 million. It remained the smallest by audience, though, behind ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer, which grew by 5.3% to 7.82 million viewers, and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, which grew by a comparatively small 2.9%, to 8.75 million.
NBC maintained its lead in the ratings in November 2011, unchanged from a year earlier at 6.1. ABC’s newscast followed with a rating of 5.4, up from 5.2 the previous year. The CBS program’s rating rose to 4.3 from 4.1.
Overall, ratings grew to 15.8 for the 3 programs, up from 15.4 the prior year. As a percentage of all households watching TV during the timeslot, the newscast audience was 29.6% in 2011, relatively unchanged from 29.5% in 2010.
Morning news audiences also reversed a long-running trend, growing 5.4% in 2011 to 13.1 million on average for the 3 network morning news programs. This was the first rise in 7 years, and returned viewership to 2008 levels. ABC’s Good Morning America experienced the largest growth, to 4.8 million viewers, while NBC Today grew slightly in maintaining its lead, and the CBS Early Show remained relatively flat.
Although NBC’s viewership grew, its ratings remained level and share dropped. CBS also saw a decline in ratings and share, although ABC showed growth in both metrics.
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