The television news business is trying hard to catch up with rapidly changing technology.
Americans are getting more of their news from their Twitter feeds, friends’ Facebook posts and websites such as Reddit. There are live bloggers who chronicle events as they unfold — now they can even stream live video with their smartphones.
But TV news is still overwhelmingly watched on televisions. Although the landscape has become more challenging, TV news can still be a lucrative endeavor. The morning shows each generate hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue for their networks.
The evening newscasts remain vital to each network’s image, and after years of fighting off irrelevancy, are now seeing a ratings renaissance. Cable news outlets are big profit centers for their corporate parents, and while their audience levels appear to have plateaued, they can still set the agenda for what the country will be talking about.
Every day and night, these programs and networks battle for viewers’ attention. Here is how they fared, according to Nielsen, in 2014:
Unlike any other news program, the nation’s morning shows have always hinged entirely on personalities.
So the pressure was on ABC News when the contracts for the entire team of its No. 1 morning show “Good Morning America” were all up within a year of each other. By April, ABC secured new deals for lead anchors Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and Lara Spencer.
But the network did not come to terms with newsreader Josh Elliott and longtime weather forecaster Sam Champion, leading to their departures and a potential disruption in the alchemy that helped “Good Morning America” topple NBC’s “Today” in the ratings after 16 years of also-ran status.
Champion was replaced in December 2013 by his backup, Ginger Zee, and Amy Robach, a frequent substitute for Elliott, was promoted to his spot in March. GMA never missed a beat, finishing as the most-watched morning show for the second-consecutive full year with an average of 5.5 million viewers through Dec. 15, a 12% advantage over NBC’s 4.8 million.
“When we had to make changes, we made very quick and bold decisions,” said Tom Cibrowski, senior vice president for ABC News and former executive producer of “Good Morning America.”
The folks at “Today” have to be a little envious over how seamlessly “Good Morning America” absorbed its cast changes.
The NBC show’s inner maneuverings have been gossip column fodder since the fouled-up handling of Ann Curry’s exit from the anchor chair in July 2012, which resulted in a ratings plunge.
This fall, NBC hired Jamie Horowitz, a production whiz from ESPN, to oversee a total revamp of the program. But after word leaked out that he wanted to do a clean sweep of the anchor desk — angering the talent and his bosses — he was shown the door.
Even in second place, “Today” remains one of the most profitable shows in television and still pulls in a higher rate than “Good Morning America” for its commercial time, thanks to the legacy of its brand name. Matt Lauer, popular among viewers, extended his contract for two more years.
But competitors believe “Today” needs a new, consistent plan of attack if it wants to return to No. 1. “Good Morning America” has seen its ad revenues grow by 30% since it took over the top spot in 2012.
The third-place program, “CBS This Morning,” actually had the highest percentage gain in viewers during 2014 — up 7% to 3.1 million. But it was down 4% among key 25-to-54-year-old viewers that advertisers want to reach, falling well behind “Good Morning America” and “Today.”
Anchors Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King earn kudos from critics and viewers who prefer the program’s newsier approach, and executive producer Chris Licht said he has no plans for drastic alterations.
“It’s an absolute concern and it’s something that we look at,” Licht said of the lagging 25-54 demo rating, which he believes will grow over time. “We’re still in a building phase. These things take time. The mission here is to do news.”
Now that viewers can watch news as it happens throughout the day on a mobile device, the nightly evening newscast feels like it should be an outdated remnant from the era of Big Three TV network hegemony.
But in 2014, each of the programs saw audience gains.
“Not only are rumors of our death greatly exaggerated — we are a growth stock,” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said in a recent interview. “And I have a secret theory that perhaps the best thing that happened to us is the rise of other media devices. The miniaturization of everything else has made us loom a little larger.”
Williams’ program is up 5% to an average audience of 8.9 million viewers. “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” is up 6% to 8.1 million, while “CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley” rose 4% to 6.8 million. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, Muir’s broadcast is the biggest gainer, up 8%, pulling up even with Williams for the lead.
The ratings boost may be the result of having three programs — which once routinely summarized the same events in lockstep — that are more distinctive from each other than they have been in recent memory.
“ABC plays to its strengths with a faster pace and a higher story count,” said Steve Capus, executive producer of the CBS Evening News.
“CBS has a smaller number of stories and we go deeper with our journalism. Brian is an immensely talented personality and NBC strikes a middle ground,” he said. “Each of us is giving our audiences different options and that’s not always been the case.”
While evening network newscasts are resilient, the maturing cable news business now finds itself coping with audience erosion. Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC all saw slippage in their average viewing levels for the total day.
The bright spot was for Fox News Channel, No. 1 in cable news for the 13th consecutive year. Fox grew its audience by 2% among 25- to 54-year-olds in prime time thanks to Megyn Kelly, who took over the channel’s 9 p.m. slot in October 2013. Her show, “The Kelly File,” improved the time period by 10% and ended three-straight years of prime-time declines in the demographic.
FNC towered over other cable news channels in prime with 1.76 million viewers, which includes 301,000 in the 25-54 demographic. CNN averaged 515,000 viewers — a 9% decrease; and 181,000 in the demographic, which is about even with 2013. MSNBC averaged 590,000 viewers, down 8% — and its demo audience declined 17% to 169,000.
CNN has made a tactical decision to supplement its news coverage with original series programming aimed at drawing younger viewers who are more appealing to advertisers.
The episode premieres of CNN series with Anthony Bourdain, Lisa Ling and John Walsh were time-period winners. As weekly entries launched in eight-episode batches, such shows can’t be expected to move the ratings needle as much as a star personality who is on every weeknight. Nevertheless, CNN’s new approach helped it surpass MSNBC for second place among the 25-to-54 demo in prime time.
The NBC-owned channel is most likely to see an overhaul in 2015, as its lineup of progressive-leaning political talk shows have faded.
“We’re going to get out in America — and outside of dysfunctional Washington — and pursue the full range of stories that American families are interested in,” said MSNBC president Phil Griffin.