Post-Election, The Audience Drifts Away

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Americans became smitten with the high drama of the presidential election, but the transition of power is proving less than sexy.

Ratings for cable TV news and the number of visits to news Web sites built for weeks and then peaked on Election Day, giving the electronic media some of their biggest audiences in years. But since then, TV ratings and online traffic have fallen -- in many cases precipitously -- indicating that viewers and visitors have largely quenched their thirst for political news.

The ratings rise and fall suggest that the suspense and conflict of the campaign's closing days made for a far better story than the aftermath of President-elect Barack Obama's victory and the beginnings of his administration. The lone exception was broadcast news, which has held relatively steady through November.

The most pronounced declines were in traffic at popular news Web sites, which saw a steady increase for months. The tide crested as Americans went to the polls; MSNBC.com, which has been the most popular news site for several months, had 25.1 million unique visitors during the week of the election (it also reported 471 million page views on Election Day -- a record for the site).

Since then, millions of visitors have gone elsewhere, according to Nielsen Online. MSNBC.com's traffic declined by 25 percent, or by 6.4 million unique visitors, from its election week peak. Yahoo News lost 5.2 million unique visitors (21 percent). CNN.com, which scored the most traffic during the week of the election, deflated most of all, losing one-third of its 26.9 million visitors in the post-election week.

The story was similar for the cable news networks, which for months devoted huge swaths of their airtime to politics. Viewing of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC peaked during the week of the election. Fox News, in fact, became the most popular cable network of any kind in prime time for two weeks running, beating not just its cable news rivals but also the cable entertainment networks USA and TNT.

But that spike disappeared quickly. After peaking with a weekly average of 3.5 million viewers during prime time during election week, Fox News lost more than a million viewers the next week. CNN saw an even larger exodus, with its peak prime-time audience of 3.3 million dropping by some 1.9 million. MSNBC shed 862,000 viewers during that period, from its peak average of 2.2 million during election week.

"We've had a tremendous run-up on MSNBC in the past two years, so it would have been truly surprising if there hadn't been a falloff after that," said NBC News President Steve Capus, who oversees MSNBC. People who watch cable news, he said, "are notorious for their short attention spans. If they don't like what you're doing, they're gone."

The end of the election cycle presents the cable news networks with a tricky transition, said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which tracks television news. The three all-news networks built audiences this year by becoming "the cable politics networks," he said, serving political junkies to the exclusion of people seeking other kinds of news.

With the election over, the problem they face is how to build an audience without the daily give-and-take of pundits debating the latest campaign developments, he said. Of the big three, Tyndall believes MSNBC has the most difficult road. Its marquee hosts, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, have carved out reputations as fierce critics of the Bush administration, making it harder for them to turn around and become opponents of Obama, he said.

But Capus disagreed. "Fox has had a pretty darn good run with George Bush in the White House," he said. "So there are a lot of different ways to reach the audience that's out there. None of our hosts have to fall into the category of flag-wavers for Obama. We do not have to present a predictable ideological conversation. We've got to be smart about it. The success we've had recently is more broadly based than just being the loyal opposition."

Meanwhile, broadcast news appears to have bucked the boom-and-bust ratings cycle of the election. All three nightly network newscasts saw an uptick during the week of the election, but the gains were relatively modest. The audience for ABC's "World News," for example, grew 11 percent during the week of the election; the "CBS Evening News" with Katie Couric was flat (the figures for CBS and ABC don't include election night results, because their newscasts didn't air in many cities).

The audience for Washington area newscasts has continued to grow after the election. For example, WRC (Channel 4) -- the most popular news station in town -- had an average of 172,000 viewers at 11 p.m. during October; it was averaging 189,000 per night in November, through Wednesday's broadcast.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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