The Sky’s the Limit

Why news consumption on cable, computers and phones is way up, and why it may not stay that way
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Boarding a full United Airlines flight in Chicago on April 9, Dr. David Dao had no ambition to become a global news subject, much less the bloodied face of a video gone universally viral. The 69-year-old physician merely intended to “Fly the Friendly Skies” on an uneventful return to Louisville, near his home in Elizabeth, Ky. But smartphonecamera ready or not, Dao instead was destined for news-cycle video fame—or in his case, infamy.

When Dao wouldn’t relinquish his seat to accommodate an airline staffer United wished to have on the plane instead, the airline hit the eject button, summoning airport security to manhandle the slight gentleman. Out popped smartphones as a planeload of fellow passengers morphed into citizen journalists. From myriad angles, they recorded Dao as the bouncers dragged him down the aisle; he lost two teeth and was knocked unconscious from being banged around like luggage, his midriff exposed.

Of course, by now, this is not news to you: The outrageous image has spread across the earth like (from United’s shameful view) a pandemic. No quicker than you can say “upload,” the video file leapt from smartphones to social media to websites, blogs and, maybe most prominently, to television. Where it has been turned into ratings.

This is the coursing path of the current, vastly successful news cycle. Viral video begets viral news. The incident may have started out as the former, but quickly became the latter, especially after it was cued up as footage for traditional news outlets, topping newscasts on cable, broadcast and satellite TV worldwide. It even made the newspapers, or, to be precise, video on newspaper websites.

Just a few years ago, the incident would have rated no more than outraged dinner conversation by the eyewitnesses. But between the broadcast and cable news cycles and the immediacy of the Web, we are now knee deep in the age of what can perhaps best be called News Ubiquity. And here’s the surprising rub: Unlike in past, the younger demos are along for the viewing ride—albeit on their platform of choice, through digital options and social media. The other shocker: the incredible rise in news consumption comes at a moment when broadcasters are battling the “fake” prefix before much of what they report.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s too early to tell the societal benefits—or drawbacks—of all this instant information. Is mankind becoming more widely and deeply informed on current events than ever in human history? Or for the average person, does it mean the possibility of falling victim to news overload?

For traditional news media, the phenomenon is changing the economics and audiences, and putting a spotlight on the generational divide in modes of media consumption—a trend that’s already crimping ratings and revenue at entertainment cable networks.

What exactly is the phenomenon behind this latest potential tectonic shift in the media landscape? Broadcast and cable news is now saturated with a seemingly endless flood of content. That flood includes those unexpected moments spontaneously captured that subsequently become news—that can be produced by any one of 2.6 billion smart-phone users, a third of the world population. (Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of other video-capturing digital devices also qualify as production gear for news ubiquity.)

Viral video has expansive reach and a riveted “like”-minded audience. So when something newsworthy happens—beyond the fleeting entertainment value of a surfing squirrel—it can have massive impact. The 15-second clip of the United Airlines ruffian image hit the company’s stock price, threatened the job of CEO Oscar Muñoz, sparked global outrage and prompted this reaction from President Trump, “Horrible!” So, too, did the recent live-streamed rape of a Chicago teen on Facebook have impact. Police have at presstime arrested two suspects, who, if convicted, will face serious punishment.

And from the first sniff of a story to the lengthened conclusion, people keep watching with more fervor than a reality TV story arc. Nielsen recently noted “a phenomenal increase in news” in its Total Audience Report for the fourth quarter. “Increased usage across national and local TV, radio and digital sources shows a 2016 increase of 11.2 billion minutes of news consumption per week, compared to 2015,” according to the report.

Adults 18 years old and up spent more than 73.5 billion minutes consuming news in the average week in 2016, up 18% from the prior year, and every platform shared in the gains, except local news. National news viewing grew to 14.3 billion minutes in 2016, up 5% from 13.6 billion the year earlier. News viewed on personal computers jumped 46% to 4.1 billion minutes from 2.8 billion minutes. Smartphone news climbed by half to 1.5 billion minutes from 1 billion minutes. Cable news saw the meatiest gains of all. Viewership increased 44% to 27.1 billion minutes from 18.8 billion in 2015.

Viewers Remain Hungry

Our fattened cable news diet came during an historic presidential campaign season. For news media, election years are already like a Thanksgiving feast. Then, traditionally, we go on a post-election news diet after a steady feeding on the debates and election. But not this year; not by a long shot. So far, 2017 is starting with even more news viewing, listening, reading and mix of all, according to Nielsen.

“No one could have predicted the high level of consumption” would persist, noted Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president and a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Cable news programmers of all stripes are ecstatic over the numbers. The Big Three of cable news all posted sizable ad revenue gains in the 2016 political cycle.

All in all, news consumption has been unbelievably bountiful since the summer of 2015, courtesy of the “Trump effect.” War tensions in Syria, illegal immigrants, Brexit, Zika, terror attacks, celebrity deaths and tense relations between police and communities also led to a seemingly historic 2016. In what Nielsen calls “the unrelenting flood of stories,” the Presidential election, centered on the unusual character of Trump, was the main course.

With the election now passed, news consumers have rechanneled their hyper-curiosity and interest into the triumphant Trump’s herky-jerky governance style. For one, the administration brings ample potential for conflicts of interest, a factor contributing to reenergized enterprise reporting across newspapers and TV, where the president keeps delivering fake jabs.

The Trump presidency has reality-TV appeal for political partisans, says Andrew Tyndall, an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report. The President’s self-professed unpredictability, while keeping many people on edge, also finds them keeping a closer tab through TV news after first being funneled through his own Twitter feed and other social media outlets.

His ratings-boosting decision to blast Syria with cruise missiles is an example. Any of his tweets can lead to headlines. A much-discredited missive about President Obama bugging Trump Tower is a prime example. And the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian hacking is the gift that keeps on giving to reporters. He may or may not prove to be good for America, but he is a boon for cable news.

And it’s not just Trump; the chess-piece moves across the global board are attention-grabbing head-scratchers. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s threat of nuclear tests has the West on alert. The ongoing love/hate between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin plays like either a brilliant smokescreen or a return to Cold War politics. And on television, the top broadcast anchors try to keep sane count of what’s going on, while on CNN, the always energized Jake Tapper shrugs incredulously. And the viewing minutes pile up.

History Repeats

But how long before exhaustion takes effect? The administration is nearing the 100-day mark, but the “Trump effect” has lasted more like two years.

Is there a chance the balloon will burst? Already, a clear-eyed look at the overall television audience reveals what may be the start of a long-term decline in ratings for cable networks and a generational shift away from broadcast news, not incremental growth.

The current news media environment is in important ways similar to a half-century ago; the big differences, of course, are that the world was smaller and broadcast television ruled. The era was rich with news. Instead of Trump and Hillary Clinton (and, along the way, Bernie Sanders), the party standard bearers in 1968 were Richard Nixon, Hubert-Humphrey and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. Then as now, audience-generating news beyond politics was similar. A U.S. and North Korea confrontation (seizure of the U.S. spy ship then; nuclear testing now); Russian tensions (Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia then; election hacking and backing of Syria now); and social and economic justice issues (urban riots, anti-war movement then; Black Lives Matter, health insurance, now). And not to forget war (Vietnam then; ISIS in Iraq and Syria now). And the domestic, political and social upheaval were historic given the back-to-back assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Broadcast television was the news source for half of U.S. households that eventful year. In 1969, ABC, CBS and NBC, the “Big Three,” attracted a record 60 million viewers total, while notching a 50% rating and 85% share.

Broadcast executives did not realize it at the time, but their networks had peaked. Cable TV was barely more than an antenna service for amplifying signals of local broadcast affiliates; in time, it would supplant broadcast and reinvent the delivery of news on a 24-hour basis. Then as now, demographics might well have been a factor. The latter wave of baby boomers, the youngest on the back end of the generation, certainly would embrace cable. A demographic shift in news-consuming behavior was in the offing, too, as American work life eventually left the TV set darkened for the 6:30 newscast, now commuting hour for many workers. Around-the-clock cable news and on-demand viewing came along to fill a niche.

Flash forward half a century to today. Nielsen finds that 81% of those watching national cable news were 50 years old and up, with just 6% of its viewers in the 18-34 age demo. For national broadcast news, 74% is 50- plus and just 8% is 18-34. In local TV news, 73% is 50-plus, with 8% in the 18-34 bracket.

Today, the media ecosystem, because of the highly disruptive nature of digital technology and the ascendant millennial generation, is challenging not only for broadcasters but cable news as well. Last April, millennials (population: 75.4 million) supplanted the boomers (74.9 million) as the largest generation, and the ways to reach them have and will continue to shift.

Youth Is Served

The evidence continues to mount that their behaviors and attitudes are distinct from their elder generation. Overall, interest in local and national news by adults 18-29 pales compared with elders. They don’t discuss news as much as older folks. And most definitely, they are less likely to turn on TV news or read a newspaper. But that’s the point: They’re busy tuning into Samantha Bee of Full Frontal on Turner, where young adults devour her political satire. The viewership has been buoyed by a sharp increase in the 18-49 demographic—the generation that hogs the digital realm for news.

Last summer, the Pew Research report, “The Modern News Consumer,” found millenials are the leading consumers of online news. More than half of those aged 18-29 are likely to prefer getting news from the Web, compared with 38% of users 30-49. They head to social networking sites for news more than any other age group, and they use news websites and apps more than consumers 50 and older (the numbers are 15% for ages 50- 64 and 7% for 65 and over).

Young-skewing online news consumers tend to have a more distrustful attitude about the news media, and sense more media bias than those who favor other news platforms. Then again, they are also more likely to share news digitally. Generally, the online news consumers tend to come across news rather than to go hunting for it. When they do go looking, they most often head to news organizations, news websites or apps.

This surfing generation also is the one blowing up the mobile news space. Among those aged 18-29, approximately 70% prefer or only use mobile—not desktop computers—to access digital news, compared with 53% of those 30-49.

And their attention is lavished only on the content that is most appealing at the moment. Attention is fleeting; will a sudden lack of vital news have the greatest effect on the continued ratings rise? Perhaps: As “JJ” wrote last week in a Twitter post, in one of millions of comments on the United Airlines story, “The jokes are getting boring about United Airlines...please move on.”

Boarding a full United Airlines flight in Chicago on April 9, Dr. David Dao had no ambition to become a global news subject, much less the bloodied face of a video gone universally viral. The 69-year-old physician merely intended to “Fly the Friendly Skies” on an uneventful return to Louisville, near his home in Elizabeth, Ky. But smartphonecamera ready or not, Dao instead was destined for news-cycle video fame—or in his case, infamy.

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