A hunger for information is driving TV news to peak levels
A cooped-up audience hungry for information on the coronavirus is driving up viewership of TV news to extraordinary levels.
Cable and broadcast networks typically see a Nielsen ratings bump when the public is captivated by a major crisis. But the networks have rarely experienced anything quite like the viewership surge they are seeing at all hours of the day, as half the country is ordered to stay home in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
A stark example was the Fox News broadcast from the White House on Tuesday with President Trump and other officials discussing the crisis. The audience of 4.4 million viewers was the largest ever for a cable news town hall program, even though it aired at noon Eastern time, when there are typically fewer people available to watch.
Despite criticism that it initially downplayed the virus outbreak, Fox News had its most-watched week of 2020 from March 16 to March 22, with an average of 2.5 million throughout the day, a 73% increase over a comparable week last year. It was followed by CNN’s 1.55 million viewers, which was up 151% from last year, and MSNBC, which drew 1.48 million viewers for a 45% gain.
The three broadcast network evening newscasts, which have seen their clout diminish in recent years as more viewers turn to cable and the internet, are seeing their highest viewing levels in more than 15 years. Last week, they averaged 32 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That was the most viewers since January 2004, before streaming and the widespread use of DVRs.
“ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” and “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt” locked up the entire 10 most-watched programs from March 16 to March 22, including all prime-time shows ranked by Nielsen.
Muir’s program averaged 12.5 million viewers for the week, a level not seen in 20 years since Peter Jennings anchored the program, while Holt scored 12 million viewers. NBC is even giving a second run of Holt’s broadcast in some markets. “CBS Evening News With Norah O’Donnell” drew 7.6 million viewers, its largest audience since Jan. 2017.
“I suspect some of it is intergenerational viewing occurring while people are sheltering in place,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “Evening news broadcasts have an older audience. The people who watch those shows faithfully and make it part of their routine are older. I wonder whether they are continuing that routine but now with extended families.”
Traditional television viewing, which has steadily declined in recent years as more people turn to streaming for video entertainment, has been seeing gains overall since the pandemic has driven Americans indoors.
During the week of March 3 to March 8, the percentage of U.S. homes watching TV in prime time was 47.5%. Last week, the figure was up to 52.9%. The growth has been even higher among younger viewers, who have been abandoning TV in droves in recent years.
Lukasiewicz believes viewers of broadcast network news are also likely to be looking for a depoliticized take on the coronavirus crisis, as cable news channels often toggle from straight reporting to partisan commentary, especially in prime time.
On cable, CNN has seen the largest percentage increase overall and among viewers ages 25 to 54 who are less likely to watch cable news during quieter times. Although CNN has its share of opinionated talking-head commentators, it still benefits from being the longest-running brand name in cable news.
“It’s synonymous with news, and I’m sure that’s a long halo effect from which they continue to benefit,” Lukasiewicz said.
Cable news channels are also seeing audience lifts during the day when the coronavirus task force holds its daily briefings from the White House.
Some veteran journalists and cable hosts such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have criticized the decision to run the briefings live and unfiltered because of the amount of misinformation delivered by Trump during the lengthy and at times ramshackle sessions.
On Monday, all of the networks but Fox News pulled away when they determined no new information was forthcoming. All of the news divisions said they will continue to run the briefings, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether they are newsworthy enough to stay with them for the duration.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily news conferences on the crisis, which have been widely praised by the media, have also delivered surges in the Nielsen numbers. On Monday and Tuesday, Cuomo’s sessions averaged 6.7 million viewers on cable news, more than double the usual level.
The viewership jump is occurring even as news divisions take extreme measures to protect the health of their employees. Many anchors are broadcasting from home and handling their own hair and makeup as a number of staff members across the networks have tested positive for the coronavirus, including an NBC News technician who died March 19.
The closing of the New York studio of CBS News forced “CBS Sunday Morning” to air from the network’s bureau in Los Angeles. Substitute host Lee Cowan presented the program in front of a low-tech spare black background, but it attracted 6.82 million viewers, the most since 1994.
Other Sunday morning news programs have seen surges as well, with “Face the Nation” scoring 5.14 million viewers March 22 for CBS — the largest audience since February 1991. NBC’s “Meet the Press” averaged 5 million viewers across NBC and MSNBC, the highest since December 2008.
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