Learning the news: Fun with numbers

Don’t believe the cable TV news hype. Broadcast TV news and newspapers are not only still alive, but they continue to deliver the most reliable news, writes Roger Plothow.

Let’s do a little math. Come on, it’ll be fun.

There are approximately 125 million households in the United States.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Try this one:

On a recent week, the three evening cable “news” channels – Fox, CNN and MSNBC – claimed a total of 5.1 million viewers, or about half that number in total households. Put differently, about 2 percent of American households tune into Fox, CNN or MSNBC on any given evening.

(I put quotation marks around “news” because MSNBC and Fox are mostly opinion, while CNN is a mixture of news and people yelling at each other.)

That’s way better than those old-fashioned evening news programs broadcast by ABC, CBS and NBC, right?

Wrong. Way wrong. Combined, they average about 20 million viewers a night and about 10 million households. In other words, about four times as many Americans watch national broadcast TV news than watch the cable news shows.

So why is all the shouting about cable? At least in part it’s because those programs usually say the most outrageous things, which then get picked up on social media, and we all share them with our friends, and … you know the rest.

Some more interesting factoids: The median age of a Fox News viewer is 68. At MSNBC it’s 63, and at CNN it’s 61. These are not great demographics. TV advertisers want the 25-44 demographic.

These cable “giants” keep on going because producing opinion shows is cheap. Find a few talking heads, bring in some people to interview and, voila! A show! Journalism, as you have read from me before, is expensive. It costs money for ABC, CBS and NBC have reporters and stuff. Opinion is cheap.

Every day in the U.S., 55 million to 60 million newspapers are sold. With an average pass-along rate of just under three readers per copy sold, one can extrapolate that about 150 million Americans read a newspaper every day. To be fair, our readership is aging, too. But these aren’t the numbers of a dying business. Newspapers’ problem is more on the advertising side, where our old staple advertisers like department stores are having their own problems. Advertising has always paid most of our bills.

It’s no piece of cake at TV, where more and more viewers record the programs and then fast-forward through the ads.

When I ask people attending my presentations on media literacy how many viewers they think watch Fox news across the country every night, the answers generally range from 10 million to five or 10 times that number. Cable TV’s reach is vastly over-estimated.

What’s my point? Don’t believe the hype. Legacy news organizations like broadcast TV and newspapers are not only still alive, but they continue to deliver the most reliable news. And it’s not just the legacy products that have older readers or viewers – that’s a cable phenomenon as well. We’re all having trouble convincing young adults to pay attention to us.

In future weeks, we’ll use this information to draw some conclusions and distinctions. Additional math will be kept to a minimum.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy. Information for this column comes from these sources: Variety Magazine, Ad Week, Pew Research Center and State of the Media.org.