Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States
Where the viewers went
Primetime average ratings in percentages of households in October, November and December 2001. (Source: Nielsen data compiled by PBS.)
  Fall 2000 Fall 2001 Change
Total homes 61.6 60.8 -1%
Public TV 2.1 1.7 -19%
Big 4 nets 31.1 28.6 -8%
Other nets 5.5 5.3 -4%
Cable 27.5 29.7 +8%
CNN 0.9 1.1 +22%
Fox News 0.6 1.0 +67%
Headline 0.2 0.3 +50%
MSNBC 0.4 0.5 +25%

Hunger for news after Sept. 11 cuts into PBS ratings

Originally published in Current, Jan. 28, 2002
By Steve Behrens

Americans' obsession with terrorist threats pulled them to hard-news channels last fall, cutting primetime average PBS ratings by 19 percent, compared with a year before, according to Nielsen figures.

The average primetime household rating for October-December 2001 dropped from 2.1 to 1.79 percent—down 0.4 points, representing a loss of about 350,000 households.

Even within that period, however, PBS saw what may be the beginnings of recovery. The monthly average for October was down 0.5 points compared with the previous year; November was down 0.4 points and December was down 0.3, according to John Fuller, PBS senior director of research.

What knocked the average down was "the gravitation of older viewers to the news channels," Fuller says. Women ages 50-64 fled PBS by 24 percent and men in that age group by 22 percent, according to figures presented by PBS at the National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference this month. Ratings among viewers younger than 50 were down just 0.1 or 0.2 points, he notes. "I'm not sure what else to conclude right now."

Among the audience gainers in the fall were Fox News Channel, up 0.4 points (67 percent growth, nearly catching up with CNN); CNN, up 0.2; and MSNBC and Headline News, both up 0.1, according to Nielsen figures distributed by PBS to stations.

The cable networks most often compared to PBS--A&E, Bravo, History Channel and Discovery--were flat or down. The big four commercial networks continued their usual decline, dropping 8 percent or an average of 0.6 points.

Cable entertainment channels that don't depend on the old and serious-minded folks found in PBS's audience did well. Lifetime and HBO both grew to 1.5 ratings, nearing PBS's 1.7 primetime score. HBO, which is spending heavily for The Sopranos and other dramatic series, "has been inching up over the last several years," Fuller says.

But the longer-term trend, he adds, is that cable networks will suffer from the same audience fragmentation that has eaten away at broadcast nets. Average viewers can now choose among about 75 channels, and that average is growing rapidly as cable and DBS expand. Networks like Discovery have hit plateaus and are growing by adding new channels.

Another prominent audience watcher, Judith LeRoy, co-director of TRAC Media Research, thinks PBS's primetime numbers may not have fallen as steeply as 19 percent.

She calculated an 11 percent drop from fall 2000 to fall 2001 after taking out the seven stations experimenting with PBS's pilot schedule as well as stations that were not counted for all of the past three years. The data also came from a different source: Nielsen's 53 metered markets instead of its national meter sample.

Her explanation for the PBS ratings tumble echoes Fuller's, however. The cable news networks were already booming in fall 2000, when the White House was up for grabs, she observes. "This year, they shot up further."

When PBS aired a program pertinent to terrorism, it got a bigger audience, she observes. In Cleveland, she says, Frontline's update of "Hunting Bin Laden" drew an "unthinkable" 3.2 rating at 11 p.m.

More typical fare suffered. Audiences for the second season of the popular Legendary Lighthouses were down 32 percent compared with the first season in 1998-99, according to LeRoy. Even the PBS cume—the percentage of all the households that watch or sample public TV—declined slightly.

"Are we dead?" she asks. "No, but we need some more programs of general appeal."

One was Ken Burns' two-parter on Mark Twain, which aired this month, with strong average overnight ratings of 4.7 and 4.0, LeRoy says. "You put a program out there that has appeal, and people will come to it."


Web page posted Jan. 30, 2002
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.


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