What's happened to news on television?
Television remains the most popular source of news for Americans, even as a majority of us also regularly consume news from newspapers, radio, and the Internet. A 2014 study by the American Press Institute's Media Insight Project found that 93% of Americans get at least some of their news from television stations, networks, and their websites; 66% from newspapers and their websites; 56% from radio stations and their websites; and 47% from digital-only sites like Yahoo! News and BuzzFeed.
There are now more hours of news on television than ever, even though the size of the news staffs of local stations and national networks has mostly stagnated after years of reductions to maintain their profitability. The content of both national network and local station television news appears to be primarily shaped by what is currently popular, with minute-to-minute measurements of audience ratings. News on television is characterized today by weather, traffic, crime, sports, and broadcasters' banter on expanded hours of local television news; celebrity interviews, lifestyle news, entertainment and more banter on the networks' long morning shows; disaster and lifestyle news along with digests of national and world developments on the networks' relatively brief evening newscasts; and endless hours of often opinionated talk on cable news.
After decades of decline, the combined audience for the flagship ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts has steadied in recent years at a nightly average of about twenty-four million people in 2015. That is still much larger than the combined prime-time cable news audience of less than three million for CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center and Nielsen Media Research. But news took up only 18.8 minutes of the broadcast networks' thirty-minute evening newscasts in 2012, according to a Pew study, with the rest of the time devoted to commercials and network promotions. Despite its name, ABC World News offered the least foreign news but the most crime, lifestyle, and entertainment news. NBC Nightly News aired somewhat more government and politics news, along with a sizeable amount of lifestyle news. CBS Evening News had notably less lifestyle news and the most foreign and national security news, even though CBS operated fewer overseas news bureaus, only five, after closing nine bureaus around the world between 2008 and 2012.
Since the Pew study, the three networks have further sped up the pace of their evening news programs—with ABC adding garish cable news-style graphics and melodramatic music and sound effects—and have devoted still more of each program's eighteen-plus minutes to audience-attracting human interest stories and Internet videos of odd occurrences, children, and animals. The changes likely are aimed at attracting younger viewers. Pew Research Center news media studies have repeatedly shown that the evening news audiences skew several years or more older than the median age for the US population of about 46.
News has been mostly marginalized on what had been the broadcast networks' other news shows. Their featured morning shows—ABC's Good Morning America, NBC's Today, and CBS's This Morning—have increasingly supplanted serious news coverage for their combined audience of twelve to thirteen million viewers with human interest features, entertainment, and talk, especially after their first half-hour on the air. With the exception of 60 Minutes on CBS, with a consistent audience of eleven to twelve million on Sunday evenings, what had been in-depth prime-time news magazines—Dateline on NBC, 48 Hours on CBS, and 20-20 and Primetime on ABC—have become tabloid television programs. They have featured melodramatic narratives of crimes, court cases, and bizarre occurrences, even as their audiences have fallen in the past decade to about five million viewers each.
All three broadcast networks have reduced their news staffs in recent years to cut costs, as estimated by Pew. They do not break out annual budget or staffing details for their news divisions. "Assessing the state of network newsrooms is difficult," Pew reported in 2011, "but available information suggests these newsrooms are less than half the size they were in the 1980s." With smaller news staffs, the broadcast networks are using more reporting and video from their local stations and other sources, including YouTube, Twitter, and other social media.
The Spanish-language Univision and Telemundo television networks, which feature telenovela soap operas and variety shows, also produce national news programs on weeknights that resemble those of the three major English-1 anguage networks and draw sizeable audiences.
The total audience for the three major cable news networks— CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC—has fallen in recent years to less than three million viewers in primetime and two million during the day, according to 2014 Pew and Nielsen data. But they reported in 2013 that cable news network consumers spend twice as much time watching each day as did viewers of broadcast network news. What those cable news viewers see today is more talk—i nterviews, commentary, and opinion— and less live coverage of breaking news and events, which had once distinguished cable news.
A Pew Research study of cable news content in 2012 showed that "overall, commentary and opinion are more prevalent throughout the day (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%)." Only CNN, which has a larger reporting staff and more news bureaus worldwide than any of the other broadcast or cable networks, has recently reversed that trend and increased its breaking news coverage, including from CNN International. Overall, CNN still broadcasts the most news of the three major cable news networks, according to Pew, while MSNBC did the least. MSNBC specialized in left-1 eaning political commentary and opinion. Fox News, which had a larger audience, featured right-l eaning news coverage, commentary, and opinion, including a 2014 prime-lime lineup of notably outspoken conservative commentators Bill O'Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, Sean Hannity, and Megyn Kelly.
Other ideologically oriented cable and satellite channels aimed at viewers on the political left or right have come and gone in recent years with none yet taking hold. One of them, Current TV, launched by former Vice President Al Gore, sold its channel space on American cable providers to the Al Jazeera Media Network, owned by the ruling family of Qatar. In 2013, it started short-lived Al Jazeera America, which offered national and international news produced by US journalists until closing down in 2016.
Besides the major general news and Spanish-language cable networks, there are a growing number of special interest channels, including CNBC, Fox Business Network, and Bloomberg TV for financial news; ESPN and other offshoots of the major broadcast networks for sports; and the Weather Channel.
Relatively little news appears on national public television in the United States. The non-profit Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which has more than 350 member public television stations, does not produce news or any other programming. Instead, PBS acquires and distributes programs from large public stations, independent producers, and other sources, including Britain's BBC. Among those are a variety of documentaries, including Frontline investigations, NOVA science and technology programs, and American Experience history and biography films—all produced by public television station WGBH in Boston. The only daily news program on PBS is the struggling evening News Hour, formerly the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, which Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer donated to the Washington, DC public television station WETA in 2014. Its reported audience has plummeted from 2.5 million viewers in 2005 to less than one million in 2013, and it has lost millions in corporate donations to support what had been an annual budget of about $25 million.