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Tsunami coverage boosts U.S. cable ratings

Coverage of the deadly tsunami that pummeled South Asia fueled a dramatic rise in CNN’s audience, but year-end Nielsen research shows double-digit audience declines in 2004 at all four 24-hour cable TV news outlets, including MSNBC.
/ Source: Reuters

Coverage of the deadly tsunami that pummeled South Asia fueled a sharp crest in CNN’s audience this week, capping a year in which its ratings and those of rival cable networks fell from war-driven heights in 2003.

Year-end figures from Nielsen Media Research show double-digit audience declines in 2004 at all four 24-hour cable television news outlets — Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC — versus 2003 when the Iraq war started.

Fox News remained the leading cable news channel for a third straight year, though its daily audience average declined 11 percent to 913,000 viewers for the year ended Dec. 26.

Fox also was the only cable news network to hold its prime-time slippage to single digits, falling just 2 percent from last year to an average of nearly 1.7 million viewers. That was more than all of its competitors combined.

Runner-up CNN and third-ranked MSNBC took the biggest hits, dropping 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively, year to year in daily average viewership. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Viewer fatigue?
Some analysts suggested the decline may be a sign of viewer fatigue as the novelty of round-the-clock news wears off, even in a year dominated by a heated presidential campaign.

“What we’re seeing is 24-hour cable news channels emerging into their middle age and, to some extent, their dotage,” said Bob Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “Some of the news junkies who made up the core 6 to 8 million people who regularly watched cable news channels may be getting kind of tired of it.”

Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall said intense public appetite for the combat footage during the U.S.-led Iraq invasion made for unusually high viewing levels last year compared with 2004. And he said this year’s numbers underscore a basic flaw in the cable news business model.

“There’s actually no need to have news on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said. “People who watch cable news all day long need to get a life.”

CNN makes gains
CNN gained the most from this week’s coverage of the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, as its total-day viewership Sunday through Wednesday jumped 75 percent compared with the three previous weeks. In prime time only, CNN posted an 81 percent audience spike.

“This is reminding them why they exist,” Tyndall said of CNN, which still outpaces Fox News in the scope of its news-gathering resources. “They are much better at reporting than they are at arguing or opinion or debate. Fox cleans their clock when it comes to all that argument stuff.”

Fox News viewership was up by a modest 18 percent this week over the rest of the month on a total-day basis (it was down 6 percent in prime time), but Fox still eclipsed CNN by well over 300,000 viewers on average, Nielsen reported.

The overall 2004 ratings decline contrasts with last year’s war-driven spike in news ratings, when real-time battlefield footage provided by journalists “embedded” with military units turned the Iraq invasion into a made-for-cable TV event, Tyndall said.

“I think the popularity of the cable news channels was inflated by the war. People got very carried away in 2003 saying the trend is toward cable, cable is the future,” Tyndall added.