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Mark Blumenthal

Mark Blumenthal

Posted: May 21, 2010 05:01 PM

Ezra Klein shares my fascination with the questions in the monthly tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) that ask Americans how they get their information about the health care reform law.

For the last two months, KFF's pollsters have asked a unique set of questions that probes a list of possible information sources and tells respondents to include both the "channels" and "websites" for various broadcast and cable networks. The somewhat startling finding is that Americans say they have gotten information more often from "cable TV news channels such as CNN, FOX, or MSNBC, or their websites" than from "national broadcast network news channels such as ABC, NBC, or CBS, or their websites."


Klein concludes:

This is, to say the least, weird. For one thing, many, many fewer people watch cable news than watch network news or listen to the radio. Yet this poll shows that cable news outranked both those sources in the "how did you learn about the law" question and in the "how important was this source in teaching you about the law" question.

I had a similar reaction when I saw the similar KFF findings from last month, having recently compiled the following ratings statistics (provided to me by the Nielsen Company) for a chapter in a forthcoming academic text. In mid-February 2010:

  • The average combined audience for the three broadcast network evening news programs (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News) was just over 24 million.

  • The average combined audience for the three broadcast network morning shows (the Today Show, Good Morning America, and the Early Show) was a little over 13 million.

  • The average combined audience for the three major cable news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) over the course of their broadcast day added to roughly 2 million.

The last bullet requires some explanation: Nielsen reports a rating based on the average audience size for any given minute of the broadcast day. Thus, we know from the statistics above that the combined cable news audience at any given moment of the day is smaller than the combined audience of the evening news broadcasts on any given evening.

What these statistics cannot tell us is how the cumulative cable audience compares. In other words, I'd like to know what percentage of Americans watches a half-hour evening news broadcast at least once a week versus how many watch at least a half-hour of cable news programming at least once a week? The standard ratings don't tell us that. They also tell us nothing about how many more Americans "tune in" to each network online. (The category totals above are based on adding together Nielsen's ratings for individual networks using a method described by Markus Prior in his 2009 article in Public Opinion Quarterly, "The Immensely Inflated News Audience: Assessing Bias in Self-Reported News Exposure;" similar Nielsen data is updated regularly on the indispensable web site, TV by the Numbers).

The Nielsen Company could produce such an estimate from their ratings data and release it into the public domain, but as far as I know, has not done so. I wish they would.

This month's KFF poll includes a follow-up that asks those who say get information about health reform from a cable news networks to identify the network they rely on most. Among other things, they identify 12% of Americans who say they rely mainly on Fox News and the Fox News website for information about the health reform law. Only 15% of these Americans rate the new health reform law favorably, 78% rate is unfavorably (see pp. 4-5 of the findings).


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