It’s time to stop judging CNN solely by its television ratings

cnn mobile

Other than the ups and downs of prime time network television ratings, there is no media beat covered more fervently than the cable news wars. For the last decade, Fox News has dominated the cable ratings, with MSNBC and CNN constantly fighting over the table scraps of second place. In the latest rendition of this narrative, MSNBC is painted as a star whose light has dimmed, its roster of shows facing all-time lows.

It’s not difficult to understand why we’re so fascinated with these sometimes-Machiavellian travails to snatch the largest portion of the 25 to 54-year-old demographic.  In addition to following the competition of three corporate behemoths, we’re also rooting for our own political leanings. With Fox News skewing right, MSNBC pushing its lineup further left, and CNN existing somewhere in the middle, the success of any particular cable network is often interpreted as a bellwether for the political outlook of the American people (even though cable news watchers make up a tiny fraction of the overall population). If MSNBC is suffering, it’s because Americans are disaffected with President Obama and the leftist agenda. The same is said for Fox News and the Boehner-led Congress.

But as these political and corporate battles play out, a larger narrative has emerged, though it’s often referenced in passing: cable news viewership is declining all across the board. As noted in the New York Times article about MSNBC’s current struggles, “Over the last five years, Fox News and CNN are both down 13 percent in total audience in prime time; MSNBC is down 21 percent.”

A big problem, however, is how journalists cover these competing companies. In a world where it’s been generally accepted that the internet, in the long run, will eventually blend all mediums — video, photography, text, audio — into one, you would think a little more attention would be paid to these companies’ online and mobile properties. The New York Times article on MSNBC’s problems doesn’t once mention web traffic. And in a recent longform profile of CNN president Jeff Zucker that combs over every minutia of the network’s show ratings, we’re treated to just this one throw-away sentence:

Though CNN’s website is a power­house, with more than double the traffic of the New York Times’, and the network remains profitable — to the tune of $600 million this year, largely derived from long-term subscription contracts with cable providers — the ratings were an embarrassment, especially in prime time.

Twice the web traffic of the New York Times — one of the most venerable, well-funded news outlets in the world? You would think that such an accomplishment would warrant more than a passing mention.

In fact, this metric alone underplays CNN’s online strength, because, unlike with the New York Times’s website, a good percentage of that online traffic comes in the form of video views. In a 2013 press release, CNN reported that it was seeing an average of 150 million online video starts. In March, it saw 275 million online video starts. That’s 9 million video views a day, and that’s without utilizing YouTube’s massive platform (the strategy of BuzzFeed). And with advertising rates for online video much, much higher than rates for standard banner advertising, CNN’s web traffic is much more valuable than similarly-sized traffic for a website that is mostly text-based.

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Not that there are many news sites that can compete with CNN online, text or otherwise. According to that 2013 press release, only Yahoo News beats it in terms of unique visitors and pageviews. It saw 92 percent and 95 percent more pageviews than Fox News and MSNBC/NBC, respectively. And here’s what a comparison of Google searches looks like for the three networks:

cable news

But what’s even more impressive is how successful CNN has been on mobile, a platform on which it dwarfs everyone else, even Yahoo. In 2013 it averaged 30 million monthly mobile views. In March (admittedly a big month for CNN as a whole because of major news events), it hit 68.5 million monthly mobile views.

mobile views

Those are just mobile browser views. CNN also had 42 million app downloads as of the end of 2013. Any mobile app startup launching today would drool at those numbers.

It’s not that journalists aren’t covering these successes, it’s just that the journalists who cover it aren’t the same journalists who write regularly about the television rating wars among the three cable news giants. Noting that Fox News has more nightly viewers without also mentioning that CNN’s total reach and video viewership dwarfs that of Fox is a disservice to readers and fails to paint an accurate portrait of which company is winning or losing the war.

In fact, the only metric I could find where CNN isn’t dominating is with Millennials, an increasingly lucrative and hard-to-reach demographic for advertisers. In this chart via Ken Doctor, we see that CNN is struggling to beat out other outlets for a share of Millennial news consumption:

millennials

If it wants to continue to succeed, it’ll have to find more inroads into this age group. But regardless of this one sore spot, when you combine CNN’s cable television viewership with both its desktop and mobile reach, you get a news organization with perhaps the largest global reach of any journalism outlet in the world. Ignoring that and focusing only on the ups and downs of Anderson Cooper’s nightly ratings is an indication that you don’t have a true understanding of how the media landscape has shifted in the last decade, or, more important, where it’s going in the decade ahead.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via intomobile