Is there a viable cable newscast audience?

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And that’s it. CNN Plus is no more. The cable news giant’s streaming product, which spent more than a month under the cloud of impending cancellation than it celebrated its own existence, ended unceremoniously on Thursday. A cadre of people hired or transferred to service personnel is left stuck in employment limbo, always a crowded space in the media industry.

I admit I wasn’t terribly surprised that CNN Plus was ending, but not out of animosity towards the network. It just struck me as an odd piece, given what we know about the demographics of those who watch channels like CNN. Cable news is largely a format for older people, and streaming is not the case at all. Was there a real audience for CNN in the cord-cutting world?

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Before evaluating this issue, some empathy should be expressed. As you may have noticed, I work for an institution that is not really associated with young people. The Washington Post, like other media, is actively exploring how to better appeal to young people. There’s a reason one of the newspaper’s most familiar faces is Dave Jorgenson. Clearly, CNN hoped CNN Plus would provide a similar bridge to people often beyond its reach.

We have recent data on what it looks like. Last month, YouGov conducted a poll asking Americans where they got their news. About 4 in 10 said they had watched cable news or used the website of a cable news network like CNN or Fox News for the news in the past week. About 1 in 5 said the same about YouTube; a third said they used social media, a group that included Twitter and Reddit.

The age divide was striking. Fifty-six percent of people aged 65 and over said they had used cable news, compared with a quarter of those under 30. Forty-one percent of those under 30 had used social media; the percentage of people aged 65 and over was half.

I contacted YouGov to see how much of an overlap there was between these two groups – in other words, what was the audience of an online crowd (which used YouTube and social media) that was also consuming cable information. The answer was surprising.

About 4 in 10 of the total respondent pool used social media or YouTube as a news source in the past week. And, of this group, 45% also used cable news. In other words, about one-fifth of all respondents fell into both categories: watching cable news and using online news tools.

It’s a great group! Bigger than I expected. There are caveats here, of course; going to doesn’t mean you’ll pay for CNN Plus. But it’s not as divided as I might have expected.

I should have realized that wasn’t necessarily the problem, given an apparent success my colleague Dave Weigel noted on Twitter: Fox Nation. Fox News set up a subscription streaming service in 2018 which, by all outward appearances, is a success.

But Fox Nation is doing something that CNN Plus hasn’t — and probably couldn’t. It takes advantage of the hard-right politics of its sister cable network to create a kind of parallel network less tied to day-to-day news coverage. If you go to its site to subscribe, the philosophy of the service is immediately apparent. There are three levels of subscription: monthly, “patriot”, and “silver patriot”.

To some extent, what Fox Nation is doing is what journalist Wesley Lowery has suggested might be a viable route for a cable news provider: integrating news into a larger cultural offering. The service fetches broader Fox content, like “Cops,” for example. Bassey suggested CNN could have made a deal to provide CNN content to an entertainment service like Hulu, dipping a toe rather than dipping. Fox Nation achieves this – but within the existing Fox community. It’s a bit like Hulu for the political right.

Of course, Fox Nation also benefits from the same thing that propels Fox News to the top of the ratings: it has a hold on Republican viewers while non-Republican viewers are less brand loyal. CNN competes with MSNBC, with The Post and other newspapers, with PBS and NPR. Fox News competes with…well, Newsmax, sort of. It is more or less that.

So there is an audience for a streaming offer from a cable news channel – not only in the sense that the worlds of viewers and newscasters overlap more than I would have imagined, but in the sense that Fox Nation seems to make it work.

The problem is not that it can’t work. It’s that it would have been difficult for CNN to be able to check the boxes for it to work as presented. Hindsight is 20-20, but here the forecast wasn’t so hazy either.


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