Television news fragmentation in the United States began on 01 June 1980 when Robert “Ted” Turner launched CNN in Atlanta, Georgia.
At that time, national television news took place for 30 minutes each evening about dinner time. TV sets would show ABC News (Frank Reynolds, Peter Jennings, Max Robinson), CBS News (Walter Cronkite) or NBC News (John Chancellor), depending on which local television station broadcast a signal strong enough for the antenna on your roof to capture.
In 1977, those three broadcast networks accounted for more than 90% of the prime-time television (news and entertainment) watched by Americans. Our television diet was relatively homogeneous.
CNN (Cable News Network) was the first 24-hour television news network, and it was available to cable subscribers across the country.
Turner had already demonstrated an ability to disrupt the status quo. In 1970, he bought WJRJ-TV, Channel 17, in Atlanta, which was losing an average of $600,000 per year. Within two years the station was profitable, broadcasting old movies and network reruns like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Turner transformed the now-WTBS (Turner Broadcasting System or TBS), from broadcast-over-air to local home to beam-satellite-to-cable across the nation, like HBO. Turner had secured the right to air Atlanta Braves games by buying the team. With its national reach, Turner’s WTBS “transformed Atlanta from a three-station market into a four-station market.”
And then he launched CNN.
Then President George H.W. Bush launched the Gulf War in 1991.
Just 24 hours after the start of the Gulf War in 1991, I had this terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. As head of the BBC’s newsgathering operation, I would soon be trying to explain to my bosses why CNN was beating everyone when it came to coverage of the war that was unfolding in Iraq.
Like many of my journalist colleagues, I had been complacent and thought the news was best served up at fixed points of the day in heavily crafted and refined news broadcasts. Oh, how we at laughed at Ted Turner’s expense, even when events like the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986 or the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 forced television networks to go live – usually painfully late and sometimes hours after coverage had been broadcast around the world by CNN.
MSNBC, a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC, launched 15 July 1996. Later that year, Fox News Channel (FNC) would launch on 07 October 1996.
Also in 1996, Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner, creating an entertainment behemoth valued at $6.5 billion. Four years later, Time Warner would merge with America Online (AOL), the largest merger in U.S. history and one that yielded an even larger corporation.
The name of the “channel” may include “news.” However, most of the air time is devoted not to reporting news but, instead, to pundits talking about the news. One example, in the second quarter of 2020, the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News had 4.331 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was a record for a cable show.
To put this into context, and to show the possible outsized effect of other news media focusing on cable news personalities:
[T]he three major cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during primetime, which is when viewing peaks. In a nation of 330 million, that’s just a little over 1 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts together can reliably pull in 21.5 million viewers a night.
In my lifetime, I’ve experienced two phases of classic disruption theory (Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard) with regard to news. That pull quote ignores the second.
Phase one: new entrants to TV news, beginning with CNN. CNN and later MSNBC and Fox were able to “establish a foothold at the low end and move up the value network—eating away at the customer base of incumbents—by using a scalable advantage.”
Phase two: the Internet did the same to all news media: newspapers, radio and television. In the process, it decimated the financial base of newspapers. And it’s eating away at cable as well through cord-cutting (using an Internet connection to watch “TV” instead of cable or satellite services).
I did not find data on digital mind share that compares “cable news” with “broadcast news” whether that’s Facebook impressions or website viewing numbers. Also, what that pull quote misses is that the challenge from “cable news” isn’t their traditional news programs. It’s their pundit programs.
By the numbers
In 1980, Nielsen estimated that about 23% of all homes with TVs subscribed to a cable service. In January 2000, 69.7% of all TV homes had cable. In February, Nielsen’s estimate was down to 56% as cord-cutting continues.
In 2003, Nielsen Media Research reported that average American television household could subscribe to more 100 channels of programming. From three to 100+ (although the three were free).
According to Pew Research, in 2015, 76% of American adults said they watched television via cable or satellite. In 2021, the share had dropped to 56%. Note: “cable news” is being delivered via each network’s internet presence.