How The Ratings Have Fallen

Last night the CBS Evening News tied its all-time low for viewers in a week.  Only 4.89 million viewers tuned in.  For that same week, about 19 million Americans — only a miniscule fraction of our total estimated population of 309 million — watched one of the three network nightly news shows.

This is a far cry from 1969, when Huntley & Brinkley and Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and half of all American households watched one of the three network news shows.   In 1980, 55 million Americans watched the evening news, and as late as 1993 more than 40 million Americans watched nightly newscasts. In short, in 17 years, as the population of the United States has grown, nightly news viewership has been cut by more than half.

Why?  I’m sure that having more viewing options, the ability to get news at any time through the internet or 24-hour cable news, and longer work days that make it harder to be home and in front of the set at 6:30, all have had an impact.  No doubt the identity of the anchors also is relevant; Katie Couric just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Walter Cronkite.  And perhaps Americans don’t really feel like the “news” reported by the networks is all that compelling any more, given the prevalence of “for your health” segments and other lifestyle pieces and concerns from some corners about biased reporting.

Although the causes of this phenomenon may be debatable, the consequences are not.  Whereas nightly news anchors used to have tremendous influence because they had tremendous audiences, that is no longer the case.  Political campaigns used to focus on getting shown on the nightly news because even a few moments of footage would define the public’s perception.  Now, if the NBC Nightly News decides not to cover a politician’s comments, that politician can count on getting the message out through friendly talking heads on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, or through blogs or Youtube.  Events are no longer seen through one lens or defined by one report.  That is bad news for the networks, but it is probably good for democracy that a few people no longer have a chokehold on the images presented to Americans over their dinners.