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'PBS NewsHour' has lost 48 percent of its audience in last 8 years

Eight years ago this month, I did an interview with then anchor Jim Lehrer in connection with the 30th anniversary of the "PBS NewsHour."

It was a laudatory piece, as I had long shared Lehrer's values about journalism and democracy.

With "NewsHour" in the news itself recently as Lehrer and his partner in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, Robert MacNeil, entered talks with WETA to have that Washington station take full ownership of the show, I went back to the interview to try and remind myself what it was that I once so liked about the newscast.

What instead seized my attention was a fact I reported in the 2005 piece. It was the size of the audience for the PBS show eight years ago: 2.5 million viewers a night.

I got that number from "NewsHour" itself, since Nielsen said it was not allowed to release those figures to me based on its contract with PBS.

Here's the news today: The size of the "NewsHour" audience in 2013 is down to 1.3 million a night. That figure also comes from "NewsHour," via Anne D. Bell, public relations manager for the show.

That's a loss of 48 percent of its audience in eight years -- 48 percent.

That's huge, but everyone in broadcast news has been hemorrhaging viewers the last decade, haven't they? Isn't that why we use the adjective "dinosaur" when we describe the nightly news?

Not, like this.

Using the figures in my 2005 piece and the best Nielsen numbers I can confirm for 2013, the rate of decline for "ABC World News" the last eight years has been 16 percent, while "NBC Nightly News" has lost 17 percent of its audience. "CBS Evening News," meanwhile, is down 22 percent. That's an average of 18 percent for the three commercial nightly news shows.

None is close to the 48 percent for "NewsHour." And, for the record, I have long bristled and continue to do so at the notion of the nightly news as a dinosaur.

Yes, it is headed to the boneyard, no digital doubt about that. But network managers have turned it into a long, slow death march -- and from the look of things, nightly network news is going to make lots of money for quite a few years before it breathes its last. Network news is not looking quite so much like a dead genre walking these days.

But the "PBS NewsHour," that's a different story. And I am being conservative and kind in reporting its audience loss the last eight years at 48 percent. Those are "NewsHour" figures that I am forced to trust though I cannot verify. The audience loss could be even greater.

(The 1.3 million figure was also reported by Abraham Moussako in an excellent piece he wrote in August for the "Columbia Journalism Review" -- questioning the continued viability of the show. But Moussako says he also got the figure from Bell.)

And, understand, the 1.3 million is a cumulative figure -- measuring how many viewers the show "reaches" in live plus 7 day viewing.

The average audience figure is what networks usually report. Average audience is the average number of people watching at any given minute.

Here's what Bell wrote in an email response about the ratings and the differences (FY is fiscal year. And, for the record, I have also long bristled at the lack of transparency in ratings data at PBS.):

Yes, the access (or lack thereof), to National Nielsen data has historically been a thorny issue for us.  But PBS has worked on that in recent years.  In fact, the data you are referencing is Nielsen data, it comes from the Nielsen NPower database and was supplied by the PBS Research department.  The 1.3 million people per night is a reach figure that reports the average cumulative audience (Live+7) across all telecasts in FY2013. It’s a simple average comprised of data from each PBS NewsHour telecast during July 1, 2012-June 30, 2013.

The reach figure does NOT compare to the “average audience” figure, which is the number of people who were watching at any given minute in a telecast (Live+7). Over the course of FY2013, the average audience figure was approximately 950,000. In the 2012 Pew State of the News Media report, you saw the average audience figure for FY2011.

So, the average audience for the "NewsHour" in 2013 is under a million viewers a night at 950,000.

Bell stresses the new audience "NewsHour" now reaches online and in mobile and social media. But the commercial networks have also had huge growth online and in mobile and social media the last eight years, and they haven't lost almost half their TV audience.

I firmly believe this nation needs at least one non-commercial, national news TV broadcast. It is important to democracy. But it is long past time to ask some hard questions about this one.

I think it is reasonable to ask whether "NewsHour" is actually a national broadcast any more with these audience numbers -- even if you use the self-reported 1.3 million. (You can read what I think as a critic about it here.)

And how long can this kind of audience loss go on before "NewsHour" becomes like "Newsweek" with the owners trying to sell or give it away for a dollar? Is that part of the story behind the WETA talks? Do the viewers and members of the station board at WETA fully understand the decline of this program?

And, in the end, is the latest move of making Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff co-anchors rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- or is it, worse, the last survivors scrambling to new seats in the remaining life boats as they take on water?

You tell me.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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