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TV news audience stabilizes

Posted: June 26, 2017 | Tags: Pew State of the Media


In its latest set of reports on “The State of News Media,” the Pew Research Center again delivered a dose of good news to the world of televised journalism.

In 2016, “Network TV news – appointment viewing for more than 20 million Americans – has experienced relative stability in the size of its audience over the past decade,” the nonpartisan “fact tank” reported.

This stability, amid an increasing number of distractions (an ever-growing arsenal of apps that are viewed on more and more screens that aren’t television) and their on-demand nature, is an accomplishment — albeit a puzzling one, said Terry Bryant, a senior professorial lecturer at American University’s School of Communications.

“I was very surprised that they have stayed relatively flat,” he said. “There’s hardly anything that you can see on the evening news cast that you won’t already know has happened.”

But, with the exception of newsmagazines (shows like “60 Minutes” and “20/20”), network news programs have maintained a steady number of viewers: about 24 million for the evening news and 13 million for the morning news. These numbers dwarf cable news viewership, even as its average prime-time audience reached a record-high of 5 million in 2016.

Bryant, who has had a long career working in and teaching broadcast journalism, said the consistency in the network channels’ numbers likely comes down to one key factor: believability. Cable news channels, like CNN and Fox News, have become less focused on news and more interested in political commentary, he said. This not only results in bad journalism, but it leads to an erosion of public trust.

To remain relevant, though, Bryant said network news will have to further adapt to mobile technology. In five to 10 years, he said, this Pew report — indeed, network news in general — could look very different.

“I really think that the traditional newscast will go by the wayside just because there are so many ways to get this information,” Bryant said. Plus, “the attention span continues to get shorter and shorter. Ten years from now, a half hour’s going to be a lot.”

A sector that has adapted to mobile technology particularly well, podcasting, also saw its audience increase in 2016. In fact, in the last 10 years, the percent of people who have listened to a podcast has quadrupled, to 40 percent. These gains come after a year in which popular new podcasts, like Gimlet’s “Heavyweight” and “RadioLab” spinoff “More Perfect,” debuted and audio journalism mainstays, such as “Serial” and “Invisibilia,” released new seasons. (And 2017 has already had two smashing successes in “S-Town” and “Missing Richard Simmons.”)

This year, Pew is changing the way it releases its State of the News Media reports. Instead of the hundred-some-page reports it has issued in the past, the center will release a series of fact sheets, sector-by-sector. The two published June 16, the reports for audio and podcasting and network, were the second in this series. The Workshop will continue to follow these reports as they’re released in the coming months.

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