A short while ago, reports started circulating that more people watch Fox News than any other cable news channel, and ever since the far right conservatives of the country have been creaming their jeans over it. Nevermind the fact that celebrating this basically meaningless statistic lends a lot of credence to the claims that Fox News is the mouthpiece of the GOP, something that these same orgasmic fans deny. The fact of the matter is that its a bunch of horseshit, a clever twisting of viewership numbers to sell a premise, that Fox News broadcasts the best shows, that is simply not true. And there are a large number of reasons why, so many that its hard to decide where to start.
But of course, I did decide. However, before I get to that, I'm going to be comparing data sets from two different studies from the same source. The first is Network News viewership and the second is Cable News viewership.
So, let's start with Cable News compared to Network News. This one is pretty easy. We'll compare prime time viewership of cable news with nighttime viewership of network news; its not a totally fair comparison because they are two different products, but its a good indicator of where people are going to get their news. Viewership is in amount per night.
Using CBS news to represent the networks (because it is the lowest in ratings of the three), network news brings in a hair over 6 million viewers. Compare that to 4.5 million viewers FOR ALL OF CABLE NEWS, and you will see that more people grab their news from CBS before bed at night than do CNN, HN, MSNBC and Fox combined. And if you really want to blow it away, combine all three networks. Together they comprise close to 23 million viewers. You could compare nighttime network viewership to daytime cable viewership if you wanted, but the disparity is even greater. Despite the fact that cable news is on all day, that one block of network news at night still pulls in more viewers. If nothing else, this at least frames the cable news debate as what it is: not really important.
But this isn't about where people get their news anyway. Its about which cable channel entertains the most and pulls in the most viewers. So which is it? Fox News, right? Well, not really. See, the research that got conservatives foaming at the mouths about how great Fox News is was a listing of top rated cable news shows. Huffington Post (sorry, but they had the data spelled out the best, so live with the cite, conservatives), points out that 9 out of 10 of the top rated cable shows are on Fox News. Hey, we're not even talking cable news at this point, but all of cable! Pretty good...they also score 2 and a quarter million viewers in this poll to CNN's 1.1 million (the next closest cable news network). My cable news source above corroborates those numbers in this graph:
Cut and dry? Not quite. It really depends on the method you want to use to measure viewers. The above graph uses the nightly method of measuring how many viewers are watching a program at any one time, the method that almost everyone uses to measure ratings. But there is another method of measurement, cumulative viewers per year. That method measures the total number of unique visitors in a year, not unlike measuring unique hits to a web site. Well, how do you think the news channels stack up in that regard?
CNN has over 10 million more viewers a year? And by the end of 2008, MSNBC was tied with Fox? Oh, the humanity!
Of course, Fox quickly discounts this method of measurement because it is considered inaccurate by advertisers. Fair enough, I can see how an advertiser wants to put their money down on a time slot with the most viewers at any one time, not try to take a shot in the dark from a cume measurement. But outside of advertising, it is a pretty telling measurement of how the channels are doing on the whole. This can mean only that Fox gets great viewership for those 9 shows in the top 10, and then everyone stops watching. Or, it might mean something else, something that isn't broached upon in these studies. It might mean people watch more than one cable news channel.
It is important to point out that the above graph (at least I think) is combining CNN proper and Headline News into one number. If you split them apart, would they both rank below the others? I don't know because I don't know how much of the total each channel represents, but probably. That would leave Fox News and MSNBC in a dead heat for first in cume. But this illustrates another point that is overlooked by Fox News fanatics, and that is that Fox News and other cable news are apples and oranges. If you want to watch crazy people, you have one channel to choose from: Fox News. There is no competition. If you want to watch non-crazy news, you have a lot more choices.
The best way to illustrate the point of this is with an analogy. I stole these numbers off various internet sites but since they are just being used for the analogy, assume they are correct without me posting ten sources. Let's say Fox is booze, CNN is Coke and MSNBC is Pepsi. Every year, Americans consume around 30 million gallons of alcohol. They consume around 25 million gallons of Coke and a little less than that of Pepsi. So alcohol is the most popular beverage. Yes, if you break the competition down into sub-categories. But if you combine all colas, Americans consume 50 million gallons a year, a pretty good margin of difference.
Fox News is booze. CNN, MSNBC and Headline News are cola, just different brands. Yes, Americans drink more booze over all than they do any one brand of cola, but when you consider that Americans only drink less Coke because they also have Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Root Beer to choose from, it makes sense that Coke would have a decreased performance; they have competition. Booze, when there's only one source of it, is booze. If you want booze, you drink from that one source. If you want crazy people, you watch Fox News because you have no choice.
Just one more thing. A recent study indicates that the average age of Fox News viewers is 65. This is the highest of the cable news channels. The current life expectancy in the US is 78 (and bound to go down now that we've stopped checking for breast cancer and can't get reform through Congress). There are only two scenarios that explain this high age, and neither is good for Fox. The first is that no young people watch them, meaning if their oldest viewers are around 80, then their youngest viewers are around 50. That brings out an easy 65 average. The other option is that young people do watch Fox News. But if they do, there are very few. Because few people get past 80, the number of people over 65 would have to be much higher than the number of much younger viewers to pull the average back up. Either way, Fox News is looking at a significant drop in viewership in about 15 to 20 years, or when the baby boomers start to drop. Glory is fleeting.
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