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The Tiny Cable News Universe

[Guest post by James Downie]

Thanks to the midterms, the Stewart-Colbert rally, and Keith Olbermann's suspension, the opinion pages have been filled with columns decrying the partisanship of today's media, and damning both sides of the aisle for relying on partisan sources. Ted Koppel is the latest to join the handwringing:

“We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly - individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.”

Who says we live in a cable news universe? Here are last Thursday’s cable news ratings:

Of all those shows, only O’Reilly gets significantly above two million total viewers. By contrast, NBC's nightly news program doubles O'Reilly's ratings in both total viewers and in the coveted 25-54 bracket. Even CBS, the lowest rated of the three, easily outdraws cable, and both broadcast and cable news face the same aging demographics: the median Fox News viewer is 65, two to three years older than the median broadcast news viewer, and CNN and MSNBC aren't far behind.

But outpacing all of TV news is radio, and that's where Koppel and other media observers should be focusing their attention. At first glance, radio may look like a conservative-dominated field. Rush Limbaugh’s weekly audience of 15 million dwarfs any television news program, and even Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck’s radio audiences are several times their TV audiences.*

In fact, though, NPR provides a counterweight both to conservative talk radio, and to the charge that both sides have equally partisan media. Twenty-seven million people listen to NPR each week, and its morning and evening news programs get fourteen and thirteen million weekly listeners respectively, just behind Limbaugh. The daily audience Unlike TV news or talk radio, NPR's median age is a downright sprightly 50. (The median age of a Limbaugh listener? 67) And as tendentious as the equivalence between MSNBC and Fox already is (MSNBC, for example, wouldn't let its anchors fundraise for an Ohio gubernatorial candidate on air), that equivalency is far more plausible than one between NPR and conservative talk radio. While Limbaugh and others spend their days spouting factually suspect rants, NPR, as James Fallows has written, "is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization." It has seventeen foreign bureaus, more than any other American news organization, and its many affiliates continue to provide local news coverage even as local papers struggle. Cable news programs may make for good copy, but perhaps politicos should step back and consider just how influential those shows really are.

*Clarification on comparing ratings: cable news ratings are typically computed for each day of the week, while radio ratings are computed in weekly terms. It is not, however, as simple as dividing the weekly number by number of shows per week: "Morning Edition," for example, gets about 7.6 million listeners daily and about 14 million per week.