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Third Quarter Cable News: Bad News for All Networks, But Hope for a Better CNN

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Droves of viewers abandoned all the cable news networks in the third quarter of 2010. Comparing 2010 viewing to 2009, in total day, the Fox News audience declined about 15%-20% in every demographic category -- that is, total audience, 18-49 year olds, 18-34 year olds and 25-54 year olds. CNN viewing dropped between 35% and 48% in those categories, while Headline News losses were between 16% and 36%. MSNBC fared best: its losses were in single digits, from 2% to 7%. Overall, according to Nielsen, the four networks lost 461,000 viewers--358,000 households in the third quarter of 2010.

In primetime viewing, Fox News lost between 19% and 31% of its viewers, while CNN lost between 48% and 56% of its audience. (No wonder that Jon Klein departed CNN.) MSNBC again did better than most, losing only between 13% and 17% of its audience in all the important categories. (It did lose 37% of 18-34s, but they don't watch much news anyway.) Headline News' total audience declined 21%, but lost between 34% and 45% of its viewers in the key demographic areas. In number of households reached, MSNBC lost 8% of its audience, but Fox News dropped 17%, Headline News dropped 19%, and CNN dropped a whopping 44%.

Year to year, there don't seem to have been any breakthrough stories in the third quarter of '09, while third quarter this year included the BP spill, so why the big drop? Could it be that the decline in viewers is symptomatic of a general and genuine disgust by news viewers who are just fed up with the kind of news being fed to them?

I admit that I want to believe the above, because changing viewers taste might result in a return to hard news coverage -- more facts and less opinions. Despite all the pessimism, I see one reason for hope -- Jim Walton, CNN's boss has

"announced CNN's largest investment in international newsgathering in its 28[now 30]-year history, with plans to significantly increase the number of correspondents worldwide, open a regional newsgathering hub in the United Arab Emirates, invest in a London-based digital-production unit, and make major investments in CNN's International Newsource and CNN's in-house wire operations."

He also mentions "Other CNN innovations [including] the development of a portable digital newsgathering kit that enables journalists to report, edit and produce news packages from nearly anywhere on the globe."

Walton's announcement sounds somewhat like a plan I've developed for another kind of news network that I'm sure would satisfy all the news purists who read HuffPost. But, if I don't get it off the ground, I wish Jim the best in his efforts, because it seems as if he's leading CNN in the right direction.

God knows they've got to do something big -- when the best you can do is replace an executive who, in the last quarter, lost roughly 40% of his audience with another executive who looks better because he lost only 20% of his audience, you know you're in deep trouble. If Walton really wants to make a fundamental change, it's the right time.