Has cable news reached its peak — a point from which the audience can only decline? If so, what does that mean for political talk radio? Reuters media critic Jack Shafer believes cable news, which is mostly cable talk — has indeed seen its high water mark.
The first sign of a peak in cable news appeared in March 2011, when the Pew Research Center released a study that proclaimed, “Though many will remember 2010 as a hard year for CNN, in reality, most cable news channels suffered audience losses.” The able chartists at Pew drew a sad graph of cable news. Combined median viewership for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC during prime time had receded 16 percent, to 3.2 million, that year. Mean viewership had also dropped 13 percent, to 3.3 million, making it the largest year-to-year drop for cable news since Pew started analyzing the numbers in 1997. It also marked the first drop in the median audience since 2006.
The bad news continued through 2011, as cable news viewership remained nearly flat. This was fairly astonishing considering all the breaking news from that year – the Arab Spring, Japan’s tsunami, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Libyan civil war and the European economic crisis – not to mention the bustle of the presidential campaign.
Shafer cites possible explanations for the decline in cable news viewership, including the continued rise of the web as a source of breaking news. But, he adds:
There’s so little news in cable news – especially during prime time – that it’s a bit of a misnomer to keep calling it “cable news.” As currently programmed, the networks best resemble political talk radio, in which people chat about the news instead of report it.
If Americans are losing their interest in political talk TV, what does that portend for the future of political talk radio? Shafer notes that while the cable news audience has peaked, viewers still move between the various networks, which continue to generate a ton of revenue. Political talk radio is in the same place — maxed out. Radio has filled the 10 lb politics sack with 10.3 lbs. of content. The best of those shows will continue to sell, but there really isn’t room to grow. That isn’t going to change. It’s time to get serious about extending the spoken-word product line.