Magazine article Insight on the News

Bringing News to the Masses

Magazine article Insight on the News

Bringing News to the Masses

Article excerpt

Last year, MSNBC and Fox News Channel joined CNN in the ranks of all-news television networks. The results were sound and fury and lawsuits as media giants battled about who would carry what to news consumers.

The nation's second-largest cable TV provider, Time Warner -- newly merged with the media empire of CNN founder Ted Turner -- snubbed Fox News Channel, which Turner's rival, Rupert Murdoch, was spending $100 million to create. Instead, Time Warner chose to offer its subscribers MSNBC -- a joint offspring of software monolith Microsoft and General Electric, the parent company of NBC. The legality question was settled in Time Warner's favor early this year.

And what's the result, now that the acrid legal smoke has cleared? Both of the two new all-news channels continue to spend vast amounts of corporate money pursuing a tiny segment of the viewing public. "They're not making any money and the average audience -- the size of which, you can only guess -- probably is less than you would reach for a midsized market like Phoenix on a network-affliated station:' says Ken Auletta, author of The Highwaymen, a just-published Collection of his New Yorker coverage of the communications industry. "It's quite extraordinary when you think about how small it is."

At the same time the (by cable standards) venerable CNN, in its 17th year, has established itself as an institution in moments of national crisis, such as the Persian Gulf War, and national mania, such as the O.J. Simpson trial or the Clarence Thomas hearings. In calmer moments, however, it pulls in a respectable but hardly overwhelming viewing audience of 500,000 to 600,000 households. Three years ago, Murdoch told Auletta that his all-news network would double CNN's audience, but the evidence suggests that all the two new networks have accomplished so far is "cannibalizing the CNN audience which in itself is very small," Auletta telas Insight.

Recently USA Today obtained numbers confirmed by Nielsen which show MSNBC with an average primetime viewership in April of .08 percent, or 24,000 television households nationwide. MSNBC's ratings failed to measure up to Fox News Channel, which reached 30,000 households during prime time. In contrast, CNN reached 578,000 homes during that same month.

But this doesn't mean the audience isn't worth fighting for. looking for people who don't like news;' says Brit Hume, the former ABC White House correspondent who left that network to become Fox News Channel's Washington bureau chief. "We're fighting over the people who do." A demographic study of the audience of the all-news channels is difficult to produce because of the small numbers involved, says Larry McGill of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York, but based on analyses of media-usage patterns, it's likely that patrons of news television are "heavy users of other types of media as well," he adds. "These are people who obviously have a deep interest in a specific subject and are getting as much information as they can from all sources of media."

And at a moment when CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather has described the state of network newscasts as "news lite," the all-news channels carry an obvious appeal. "The network's news division's hard-news coverage is an endangered species," says Hume, whose Fox News Channel recently devoted five hours of live coverage to the British elections. "That's why MSNBC exists -- to give the NBC news division something to do in eight years when they think that the other show will die."

Traditional network-news operations have been constructed to support the evening news broadcast -- the flagship of major network-news divisions, says Hume, and NBC, ABC and CBS saw a sizable exodus of news viewers during the Simpson trial, with some opting for more in-depth coverage, such as offered by CNN or Court TV, others indulged in the sensationalism of the talk shows and "tabloid television. …

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