Media Politics: Who’s Trumping Who In the TV News Wars, Really?


December 3, 2013. When it comes to TV news, who’s got the best ratings, number of viewers, etc., seems to depend on who’s speaking at the moment. It’s the Who’s Who of News Trumps…well, it’s a political football of its own sort, but it’s not always believable.

Yesterday, while heading home from a run to refill one of our propane tanks, I was listening to talk show host Jerry Doyle. That won’t happen again; he suddenly started sounding about as senseless as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey (who is not my favorite Republican politician, in case you couldn’t tell). But only the Subaru Outback has satellite radio. When it’s the truck’s turn to hit the highway, 1420 FM gets Glenn Beck, and Doyle follows Beck, so….

Before the channel got changed, Jerry did made one statement that just didn’t sound right. He stated,

…”Ten years ago, the average Fox News viewer was 59 years of age. Today, their average viewer is 69. Their audience is literally dying….”

Now, in all fairness, the Doyle dude was quite possibly throwing that out there with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek. On the other hand, he sounded as serious as a progressive President trying to defend the indefensible.

I decided to do a little research based on the following:

    1. Every news network maintains a website. (Yeah, I know this is duh material, but hang with me for a sec.)

    2. Internet presence is easy to measure through (You’d think Quantcast could also help, but not all networks bother to jump through Quantcast’s quantifying hoops, in which cases they guess, pie-in-the-sky, so let’s stick with Alexa).

    3. While TV broadcast news and Internet news will not necessarily reach the same demographics in the same numbers, it seems logical that if a network is successful in one arena, it’s probably doing reasonably well in the other.

So, how well is Fox News holding up against the old alphabet standards (ABC, NBC, CBS) and cable competitors (CNN, MSNBC)?

We thought you’d never ask. Let’s take a look at a few Alexa numbers, starting with the global and U.S. rankings for the various networks.

First, the screenshots.

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All right. In the online world, the website popularity rankings (i.e. total numbers of viewers) fall out like this:

    1. CNN………#60 globally and #20 in the U.S.

    2. Fox News….#159 globally and #38 in the U.S.

    3. NBC News….#213 globally and #60 in the U.S.

    4. ABC News….#430 globally and #130 in the U.S.

    5. CBS News….#653 globally and #245 in the U.S.

    6. MSNBC……..#2,779 globally and #595 in the U.S.

Interesting. The two cable workhorses, CNN and Fox News, are clearly kicking the tails of all three old school alphabet networks. The odd network out, MSNBC (and if you’ve seen the clip of Chris Matthews glowing over President Obama’s first election giving him a tingle up his leg, you know MSNBC is indeed an odd network), is trailing far, far behind the rest of the pack.

We could stop there, but hold on. Anyone familiar with websites knows that as important as total viewer tallies are, the bounce rate is also crucial. How many of the people who land on a given page hang around long enough to read anything? Of those who do stay, how long do they stay, and how many pages do they look at while they’re on the site?

Alexa provides those numbers, too.

Note: The first screenshot (below) is for ABC News. I accidentally cropped out the network ID line.

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Eyeballing these stats, a few things kind of jump up and beg for attention. First off, the bounce rates are horrible. If you or I, running a non-news site (like, for example, this one), had a bounce rate of 66.3% as ABC News does–or even the 46.6% posted by Fox News–we’d most likely just give up and go live in a cave somewhere. Frankly, it’s hard to understand how two thirds of the people landing on an ABC page could suddenly think, “Hey, I didn’t mean to go here!”

Perhaps they didn’t mean to go there. It could be that news websites get a lot of traffic redirected to them without the Internet surfers’ permission.

That said, it looks like the cable heavy hitters, CNN and Fox News, once again win the brass ring. Their bounce rates are the lowest, and their readers spend longer on those two sites than on any of the others. At a guess, that could well mean the people who do mean to visit either CNN or Fox News are serious about paying attention to current events.

In other words, informed voters. In the case of the alphabet networks and MSNBC, not so much.

One more stat: How many backlinks do these six sites have?

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The backlink stats are just a tad different in that ABC News shows a strong second place with 96,351, far behind CNN (as usual) but well ahead of Fox News. However, it seems highly likely that a fair percentage of those awesome looking links are spurious–which would explain ABC’s 66.3% bounce rate.

Summary: This post was inspired by Jerry Doyle’s smart alecky remark concerning the supposed age (and fading health) of Fox News viewers. The investigation of the online presence for six media networks shows Fox News coming in second out of six in website rankings (total viewer counts), first in bounce rate and time spent on the site, and third in number of backlinks. Plus, the only network running ahead of Fox News in total viewer count is fellow cable competitor CNN.

Considering the generally accepted understanding that the Internet is more heavily traveled by the younger generations than those of geriatric bent, it looks like Doyle was full of it.

So there.

As far as the title itself goes, Who’s Trumping Who In the TV News Wars, CNN clearly comes out on top, #1 throughout the nation and around the world. With Fox News holding second place, cable networks are definitely trumping the old school alphabet bunch despite ABC’s strong backlink showing.

Online, anyway…and in today’s world of partisan media politics, that does count for something.