In the past decades, one trend more than any other has defined the way television is viewed. This one trend is the dwindling of television news programs and their viewership. Fifty years ago, the nightly news programs of the three major networks was one of the great common denominators of the general American populous. Now, fewer than one in ten Americans watch one of the nightly network broadcasts.
According to statistics from the 2012 annual State of the Media Report, which contains statistical updates on the viewership of the major television networks, 22.5 million Americans, on average, watched a nightly news broadcast during the 2011 news year. This was actually at a slight increase over the 2010 season, which saw on average 21.6 million viewers per evening. However, these numbers, while impressively large, represent less than 8% of the total American population. The rest get their news from publications, online resources, or, in many cases, simply do not watch or read any form of news.
Times Gone By
Now, for comparison, let us take a look at news viewership from earlier eras. Partly due to the fact that there were only the three major networks competing for viewers, and partly because of a greater interest in hard news than the average modern viewer, the news programs of the time were a nearly ubiquitous touchstone of daily American life. The three networks would air their 6PM evening news just before the comedy, adventure, and game shows began at 7. By doing this, they captured viewers who were going to watch these programs. For statistical comparison, let us take the case of the Huntley Brinkley Report, a hard news program which aired on NBC. Its audience share in the early 1960s was estimated at 20 million, nearly as much as the total combined network news programs of today. At this time, that number represented roughly 10.6% of the American population at the time. This is not counting the audience shares of the other two major networks’ news shows.
From these numbers, it is incredibly obvious that television news has gone far downhill in terms of its popularity. It has also changed significantly in its content, moving further and further afield from hard news toward human interest stories, celebrity news, and matters which, to broadcasters of an earlier era, simply would not have been considerable as news. However, hope is far from lost. The internet has taken over where television left off, providing a nearly limitless feed of news of all varieties. In addition, for true hard news aficionados, CNN on cable television still provides a 24-hour news feed of serious and important developments in the United States and abroad. Only time will tell if the network news programs will survive, but the news media will continue to thrive on newer platforms, where they may reach an ever growing audience with ever greater speed.