The end is near for television news as we know it.
That’s the clear signal coming from an important set of Nielsen company viewership data that seems like good (or at least not-so-bad) news for cable and broadcast — until you take a closer look at the numbers and trends.
The ratings research confirms that pandemic viewing habits have accelerated massive audience shifts toward streaming — and there’s no going back. Nielsen’s data places the TV news business in the middle of a perfect storm where demographics and economics are hammering a business model, years ahead of most media executives’ expectations.
The main news coming out of this report: Viewers now spend more time streaming than watching broadcast TV, but barely — 26 percent of a typical day versus 25 percent for traditional television. That’s still an important milestone.
The big audience winner seemed to be good old cable — still grabbing 39 percent of consumers’ viewing time. That data bit set off some high-fives among a few media watchers, with headlines like “Cable Reigns Supreme.” Some TV analysts expressed confidence that, sure, streaming will overtake cable some day, but not any day soon.
No such luck.
The problem: Much of cable’s dominance is the result of strong audiences for live sports and live news — two very shaky pillars on which to rest hopes for a bright future.
Deep-pocketed streaming services are increasingly gobbling up sports rights. Traditional television outlets will be hard-pressed to compete and may soon get priced out of the market. After all, what Jeff Bezos wants, Jeff Bezos tends to get.
On the news front, cable faces a different challenge — one very familiar to colleagues in broadcast and print: Its audience is old and getting older. CNN, MSNBC and Fox all saw younger viewers race into their tents during the Trump presidency — four years that seemed to require constant television monitoring.
But when that moment passed, so did audience diversity. Cable news quickly found itself immersed once again with older viewers. By April, younger demo numbers were down 52 percent for CNN, 45 percent for Fox, and 32 percent for MSNBC.
Most of those younger viewers — and in TV news that means anyone under 55 years old — went to internet news outlets and streaming services. In just the last year, the proportion of U.S. households subscribing to at least four streaming services doubled, to 46 percent. And 82 percent of Americans now pay for at least one service.
Consumers who don’t subscribe at all to streaming closely resemble the less-desirable demographics of cable news: They are old, most likely retired, and much less affluent. That won’t make bottom-line focused CEOs happy.
No wonder TV news is going through such upheaval at the top of the executive pyramid. News divisions at ABC and CBS both have brand new presidents. CBS actually has two new chiefs, including Neeraj Khemlani, a long-time executive at Hearst who concentrated on growing their digital business and improving online “user experiences.” At NBC, Cesar Conde, named news chairman last year, has deep experience with streaming and social media strategy.
Cable leadership is also shifting. MSNBC has a new president, and with Discovery taking over Warner Media from AT&T, talk is that CNN chief Jeff Zucker could move up to a bigger corporate role focused on long-term strategy and streaming.
What happens next? As TV news moves into streaming, it will most likely get bundled in with subscription packages created by corporate masters. You want CNN? Then you’ll need to pay $15 a month for HBO Max. Same for ABC News and Disney-owned Hulu, and NBC/MSNBC with Comcast’s new streaming service, Peacock.
This could be an advantage for the broadcast brands — most of their streamers offer low-cost versions that include commercials, which have always been the main foundation of big network profits. Cable news is different.
With much smaller audiences than broadcast, cable news relies less on advertising and much more on “carriage fees” from local providers: when you pay for cable every month, a certain amount of that bill goes to all the channels in your bundle, whether you watch them or not. That’s a guaranteed source of income for Fox, CNN and MSNBC — and it’s not clear if streaming can replace that.
If it doesn’t — or doesn’t right away — look for more disruption until this perfect storm subsides: cutbacks in staffs, international coverage, and maybe even domestic coverage outside Washington.
The end of anything — whether an era or a business model — is always hard, but especially when change is rapid and unclear. That’s the news world right now, and no one can escape it: not broadcast networks and, no — despite what those new Nielsen numbers seem to say — not even cable.