TV news is losing its audience, particularly the young

Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour
pbs.orgJudy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of NewsHour

If you watch the PBS “NewsHour,” you’re a member of an increasingly select group. The “NewsHour” has lost half its audience in the last eight years, reports TV critic David Zurawik: from 2.5 million nightly viewers in 2005 to 1.3 million now.

Even more startling are the local viewership numbers. In the Twin Cities, only about 1,800 people in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic watch the “NewsHour,” according to the latest Nielsen ratings. (The 25-54 demo is the age group most coveted by advertisers.) With about 1.78 million Twin Cities adults in that demo, a Nielsen rating of 1 equates to about 17,800 viewers. The “NewsHour” gets a rating of 0.1 —that’s right, zero point one, or one-tenth of a rating point.

But the local TV news operations don’t have a lot to feel good about, either. Here are the 25-54 numbers for the local 5 p.m. newscasts:

• Fox-9, 0.7, or about 12,500 viewers

• KSTP-5, 1.0, or about 17,800 viewers

•  KARE-11, 1.6, or about 28,500 viewers

•  WCCO-4, 2.0, or about 35,600 viewers

The 25-54 numbers for the 10 p.m. newscasts are better, but far below what they were a decade ago. In fact, like the “NewsHour,” they’re probably around half of what they were.

• Fox-9, 1.6, or about 28,500 viewers

•  KSTP-5, 2.0, or about 35,600 viewers

•  WCCO-4, 4.4, or about 78,300 viewers

•  KARE-11, 5.4, or about 96,100 viewers

Although its audience is shrinking, TV can take some consolation in being America’s No. 1 news source. Surveys consistently show that more of us get our news from TV than any other source — even the Internet.

About 55 percent of all adults watched TV news on a given day, according to Pew Research. Meanwhile, 39 percent got news online and 29 percent read a newspaper.

 But the TV news audience is graying, with viewership dropping steeply among younger age groups. While 73 percent of those over age 65 watch TV news, only 34 percent of those ages 18 to 29 do.

TV news — and radio, for that matter — faces the same issues as print media. It’s an older medium that retains the loyalty of many who grew up with it but has trouble creating new loyalists among younger consumers who have more choices.

Twin Cities TV journalists, on the whole, are an appealing, hard-working bunch. But anyone under 35 in a TV news job has to wonder whether there will still be an audience for their work when the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers are gone.

Comments (21)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/04/2013 - 08:49 am.

    But what are they tuning in for?

    They call it “news” but is it really? What percentage tunes into local “news” to see the sports or weather? Most? Beyond that, what percentage of a broadcast can actually be called “news” ? Take away the advertising, sports, weather and self-promotion and you get really very little except a few car accident reports.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/04/2013 - 09:16 am.

    I tend to agree with Bob L…

    …there is too much self promotion on the local news, reported as if it were news. I don’t mind and in fact appreciate the weather and most of the sports though. I find that if an event is camera-ready it gets way more attention than it deserves. I bet the police chief walking around last night got way more coverage than the murder that prompted it. Most political coverage tends to be of the nonoffensive horse race variety: who’s ahead, what percent think this or that. There is little coverage of actual issues except to acknowledge that they exist, I think to avoid offending one side or the other. It is hard to get in-depth unbiased reporting of local political issues. But that tends to go for the newspaper as well. So I wind up at Minnpost, where the coverage is also biased but closer to my viewpoint of what is objective. It would be interesting to visit a Minnesota-oriented right-leaning site. Does one exist?

  3. Submitted by Kevin Slator on 11/04/2013 - 09:23 am.

    No news in the news

    I’m not young (I’m almost 53), but I’d bail out on local news altogether if my spouse wasn’t in the 10 p.m.TV news habit. It’s a rare broadcast when I don’t yell at the TV, “this is news?” or “can you believe that story led the 10 p.m. news,” or “can you believe they spent 5 minutes at the beginning of the broadcast on weather?” TV news is too full of fluff, human interest pieces, and weather.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 11/04/2013 - 09:44 am.

    That’s the formula that has worked very well…

    ….for many years. So they cling to it. But with viewers down drastically and their most loyal group dying off, it might be time to try a different approach. However, KSTP has a much harder edge than the other stations, and it hasn’t jump-started their ratings.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/04/2013 - 10:13 am.

      Ironically

      most news organizations have cut way back on the hard news and filled the time with feel-good puff pieces or celebrity news as a way of attracting more female viewers who have no interest in hard news. This has had the result of turning off serious news consumers of both sexes.

      • Submitted by Jim Camery on 11/04/2013 - 11:49 am.

        Petty broad brush there

        Maybe true about celebrity stuff, but sports is essentially the male version of LiLo and Khloe.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/04/2013 - 09:56 am.

    Amen to the first two comments

    The decline of television news has been precipitous, completely understandable, and sad to watch. I used to be a faithful watcher of the 5 and 6 o’clock programs, but over the years (and as I’ve changed communities from St. Louis to Denver to Minneapolis) the erosion of what qualifies as “news” and “reporting” has been steep and steady. Most of what passes for “news” in the present TV environment — aside from the laughably self-promotional, a specialty of WCCO — is the same stuff that used to take up the final minute or two of a news broadcast in olden times. Stupid pet tricks, brave little kids (or adults) fighting a terrible disease, fires, natural disasters, and anything else that makes for good video (and sometimes not-so-good) fill the time that used to be devoted to what, as a certified old person, I’ll refer to as “substantive.” Often, the only reason the “story,” such as it is, gets airtime is *because* there’s video. TV is a visual medium, after all.

    “Talent” at local stations often adopt stage names, just as they do in Hollywood, and local TV news doesn’t seem very far removed from working in that artificial environment. In that regard, I suspect Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” is not nearly as far off-base as many might believe. There remain a few dinosaurs who actually are journalists, and who have substantial experience as genuine reporters, but most have worked their way from media market to media market with degrees in amorphous fields like “Communications.”

    Those stories that aren’t “puff pieces” or sports-related suffer too often from a dearth of facts, or they go in the opposite direction into the sensational. The vast majority of what passes for political reporting falls into dearth-of-facts category. To avoid offending corporate owners and powers-that-be, considerable effort is spent to present “both sides” of an issue, even if one side is purest horsefeathers. The sensational (read: crime) hardly needs an example here.

    Worse than that, however, is the pitiful excuse for “depth.” An “in-depth” story, or even series of stories broadcast over several nights, often ends up consuming no more than 10 minutes of air time. Most of the time, that’s barely sufficient to even introduce the subject, much less genuinely inform the public about what’s going on, or the consequences of course of action ‘x’ versus course of action ‘y,’ or maybe no action at all.

    I watch PBS occasionally, never listen to the radio, and spend a lot of time reading online and in print to get my news. I’m gray and balding, and unfortunately rather far removed from the 24-35 demographic for which TV and retail executives will sell their souls, but for the most part, local TV news has lost me as a viewer, as well. The only segment of local TV news that I watch with regularity and genuine interest is the weather, and I must not be alone, because that segment of the broadcast has expanded over the years to several minutes, with plenty of computer-generated graphic wonderment to dazzle the audience. Viewers mean advertising dollars, and since the 1950s, the whole point of TV has had nothing to do with public service, and everything to do with generating income for corporate owners and shareholders.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/04/2013 - 10:43 am.

      I agree with everything Ray Schoch said

      There’s no news in the average news program. The local news programs are all fluff and careful tiptoeing around issues to avoid offending sponsors. The national network news programs are the same phenomenon on a larger scale.

      CNN used to be a great source for world news, but by the time I cancelled cable, I found it unwatchable, full of false balance and celebrity gossip. My late mother used to watch it all day, but even she gave up when CNN devoted nearly all of three days to the death of Michael Jackson.

      I used to watch The News Hour, but ever since Congress began complaining about “liberal bias” in the early 1990s, they (along with NPR) have become cautious and Establishment-oriented, afraid to question the conventional wisdom of the Beltway crowd. I’ve been told that this is because asking pointed questions or going against the carefully established boundaries of officially acceptable discourse will result in a reporter’s being denied access, no matter which party is in charge.

      An example is the coverage of the invasion of Iraq. The necessity of “doing something” about Iraq was taken as a given; the only question was whether to invade (the “conservative” position) or to continue sanctions (the “liberal” position). The options of just leaving Iraq alone, questioning the lie about weapons of mass destruction, or investigating the history of U.S.-Iraq relations, were conveniently overlooked. Both U.S. sources and the BBC took this approach. It was only the Canadians, who had chosen not to participate in the invasion, who asked the hard questions and featured stories that ran counter to the Anglo-American line.

      If news programs have been losing viewers, they have only themselves to blame. Ten minutes of crimes, fires, thinly disguised commercials, and cute kitten and puppy stories, ten minutes of weather, and ten minutes of national and high school sports. (Why are high school sports news to anyone outside the town where the high school is located?) Who needs such programming when there are books and magazines to read and DVDs and streaming options to watch?

  6. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/04/2013 - 09:57 am.

    I hate to ask, but…

    …did the ratings for Fox News increased during the 8 years “NewsHour” ratings declined? The story didn’t say.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/04/2013 - 09:59 am.

    It’s sham of a mockery of a sham!

    Well for one thing, WCCO lies to it’s audience on a daily basis claiming to be the “most watched” news. A quick exercise of math reveals that WCCO gets 114,000 viewers compared to KARE11’s 124,600 viewers! “Most Watched” indeed.

    I tried, really did try to watch the news the other night but frankly it’s impossible. Even switching around I could not land on any real news, and the stuff that’s supposed to be entertaining, like good questions, special reports, and those who care etc. are beyond lame. WCCO is obsessed with all things children, KSTP is constantly ragging on the government and crime, and KARE seems to think that mundane financial advice and sports stories will attract eyeballs like a moth to a flame. I have no idea what’s going on over on FOX.

    None of them seem to understand that every time they tell viewers that they’re going to talk about the weather now but give us the “full” forcast later we all open our browsers and look up the forecast now. Do they really think we’re going to wait for them to get back to it? Do they really think we’re gong to sit through another ten minutes of crap just so we can watch them stand in front of a map and babble on about weather watchers and photos sent in by who’sitwhatever from tumble town somewhere? Especially when their forecasts are more often than not wrong? And the maps, my god the maps. Do they actually think its 39 degress in Edina and 37 in St. Louis Park? That’s actually kinda stupid in more ways than one.

    You know they actually pay people to tell them to do this stuff? Sit on a couch because it makes people feel like your visiting them rather than broadcasting to them. Stand in front of the camera instead of sitting because it creates the impression of in depth reporting. Stand around in the dark hours after something happened and no one can actually see anything anymore because it’s “live”. Pretend your weather people are “scientists”.

    Don’t get me started on the sports…

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/04/2013 - 10:27 am.

    It’s not about the news…

    …It’s about the number of viewers. If a story about a three-legged dog is shown to attract X number of viewers and a story about the state denying health care coverage to poor people attracts X-1 viewers, they will go with the three-legged dog. KSTP can go with all the hard news they want but their anchors aren’t nearly as attractive/inviting/comfortable as the ones on WCCO and KARE. Whoever hires the onair talent at KSTP needs to be replaced.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/04/2013 - 12:09 pm.

    “News”

    I gave up on watching network Tee Vee decades ago. The news in particular went from light to fluff when they started running sensationalized stories. “Could shoe strings be harming your children? Tune in tonight to see this shocking story!” So you watch out of curiosity just to find out that shoe laces may collect a couple of germs if they touch the ground.

    Big deal.

    These days I don’t even own a television. If I do pick one up in the next few years it’ll be just to watch movies. Anything with sensationalism tied to it can just go pound sand.

  10. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/04/2013 - 01:09 pm.

    As added commentary

    you may wish to read an op-ed piece I had published in the Strib on Oct 2, relating to particularily cable news

    http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/226221101.html

  11. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 11/04/2013 - 02:42 pm.

    I’m smack in the middle of that demographic and haven’t been able to stand TV news for a long time. Even stories on important topics are so shallowly reported; the bare facts, a couple ten-second soundbites, pointless videos that add no information. In the two-minutes allocated for coverage of a top story on TV news, I can read an article and get way more information.

    Also worth noting that a lot of younger people don’t have televisions anymore–I haven’t for years. I teach college students, too, and very few of them have TVs; they just watch the shows they like on the internet. So it’s not just TV news that’s dying–it’s the TV as an entity distinct from other forms of media.

  12. Submitted by jason myron on 11/04/2013 - 02:49 pm.

    We can certainly agree

    that the local “news” isn’t really news at all, just like the styled hair reporting this “news” aren’t really journalists.
    The bigger issue is the concept of a 5:00 newscast as viable programming in the 21st century. It’s still based on an outdated formula that people will come home from work at the same time, immediately tun on the news as they eat dinner to catch up on the days events. The only people I know that actually watch the news from 5:00-6:30 everyday are my 80 year old parents.
    As for the general vapidness of the content locally, Mr. Udstrand nails it.

  13. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 11/05/2013 - 03:02 pm.

    It’s no wonder.

    TV news is awful. Unlike the newspaper or the internet, which allow you to skim and pick what interests you, TV news forces you to see the stories they pick in the order they want to present them. Is there anything I can realistically do about school bus accidents in Turkey? No. Also, they keep teasing you with one story that might be actually interesting — “Coming up!” but it never does actually come up till the very end of the show, after all the dross, when finally they give you 30 seconds of the story you’ve sat through all the rest in hopes of seeing. Ugh. Record it and skim, or get your news elsewhere.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/06/2013 - 10:33 am.

      People aren’t just watching one screen now

      If they “tease” a person can just get the story on a laptop or tablet computer during the commercial break. After enough times they just go straight to the internet and quit bothering with TV.

  14. Submitted by John Bracken on 11/06/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    They are just presenters

    The local news is generally shallow and incomplete. Anchors are actors who read a teleprompter from script that was written by a clueless intern. How do I know this? My daughter’s best friend is on TV everyday. What he reads IS written by an intern. Local journalism is dead.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2013 - 04:36 pm.

    On the other hand…

    Who needs the young anyways? Just a bunch of riffraff if you ask me.

  16. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/07/2013 - 03:27 pm.

    pathetic

    A few years back I attended a refresher journalism class in Sartell on how to interview people for feature stories. There wasn’t a male in the class except for the instructor. Before the class began we were invited to introduce ourselves. Everyone of my classmates said she intended to be on TV news. She was just biding her time at a chain newspaper until there was an opening available. I remember thinking, “Give me a break. Don’t they know TV news is show biz, not journalism? None of these women will make it on air.”

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/07/2013 - 03:46 pm.

    Broadcast Journalism….

    More and more of the up and comers are “broadcast” journalists. What a specialty eh? Well, I suppose in the olden days most of the folks on local news were actors and comedians… come to think of it, that worked better.

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