And that’s the way it is

Audiences far prefer entertainment to news.  But among those hardy souls who consume news, many more prefer TV news to the dead tree stuff – newspapers and news magazines.  For this reason TV news, while not a killer business, has been respectably profitable in the past.

I’m not sure how much longer this will be the case.

Overall, interest in news is declining, a demographic trend that will soon wipe out all but a handful of newspapers.  The problem for broadcasters is that their relatively larger share of the news audience is fragmenting as well as deserting.  With cable, satellite, and online versions of video news available, people have more choices – and they are taking all of them.

Pew Internet

What does the future hold?  Here are early returns:

With buyouts and layoffs in progress, the mood at ABC News cannot be good. It was probably not enhanced by the ratings report for the first quarter of the year showing that the network’s evening newscast, “World News,” had sunk to the lowest numbers the program has had in a first quarter since the People Meter was introduced by Nielsen in 1987.

The same situation prevailed at CBS, where the “Evening News” also hit a new low for the months of January through March.

The NYT article notes that the three network newscasts together reach an audience of 24 million, by far the largest news audience in any format.  But the networks have always owned the largest news audience – and 24 million in a country of 300 million strikes even my math-challenged brain as an unhappy number.

Of course, if you are CNN, you are looking at audiences of under a million, and wondering whether Larry King is worth his salary.  In fact, cable newscasters as a whole have been left in the dust by Spongebob Squarepants, who can, on a good day, get over 5 million viewers.

Let me finish with an observation from one of my intellectual heroes, Clay Shirky:

About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now.

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

And that, quoth Walter Cronkite, is the way it is.


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