Media World: How PBS beats cable news

Maybe the public wants serious journalism after all.

"The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and its predecessor programs have been part of the PBS line-up since 1975. What many viewers may not realize is how well the decidedly unflashy digest and analysis of the day's news does in the ratings.

According to Nielsen data supplied by PBS, the program attracted more than one million viewers last year, 450,000 of whom were in the key demographic of viewers aged 35 to 64. In the age of eroding audiences, PBS is more than holding its own.

Lehrer's ratings in that demographic surpass some of the best-known personalities in cable news, including CNN's Lou Dobbs (418k), MSNBC's Chris Matthews (408K) and CNBC's Jim Cramer (111K). His audience is roughly equal to Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert (425K). To be sure, big stars such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly (849K), CNN's Anderson Cooper (540K) and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart (534K) have more.

While the nightly news on the broadcast networks attracts millions more people than PBS, I would argue that public television is more similar to cable than traditional broadcast TV. Cable and PBS are both searching for niche audiences, and PBS attracts more than its share of opinion leaders and well-heeled decision makers.

While they are not the types of viewers who would interest a maker of a trendy youth-oriented line of clothing, they are of interest to marketers for mutual funds and major b-to-b corporate brands. That also explains why Chevron Corp. (CVX), the oil company giant, and Intel Corp. (INTC), the largest chipmaker, are helping underwrite the "NewsHour," which is about a $28 million enterprise, according to Rob Flynn, the show's vice president of communications and marketing.

When I wrote a recent post about the the changes coming to the program, the response from DailyFinance readers was surprisingly positive. PBS has built a reservoir of goodwill with the American people ever since its coverage of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. Linda Winslow, the show's current executive producer, helped produce those epic broadcasts. "It was the first big programming splash that news and public affairs programs made," she said. "Until then no one had heard of us."

Times have changed. The "NewsHour" has not escaped the financial crisis unscathed. Layoffs have been avoided, but salaries have been frozen. Producers of other PBS shows including "Sesame Street" have cut staff. NPR has also slashed its payroll along with many not-for-profit media outlets.

"We tightened tour belts and tried to figure out what to do," said Winslow. "It's been the worse year of my life."

But don't expect to see Lehrer or other "NewsHour" personalities at the next PBS pledge drive. Winslow said the show does not want to put these journalists in a potentially embarrassing situation to "go and rattle tin cups."

These days, PBS sponsorships are barely distinguishable from commercial messages on for-profit media. The changes concern veterans of PBS such as Winslow.

"As a news producer, it worries me that I have to worry about it," she said. "It's another kind of sign of the times."

The "NewsHour's" strategy of clearly distinguishing between fact and opinion seems like a throw-back to how all television news was 25 years ago. The show is happy to leave the flashy tabloid stories to the media pack. Sometimes, though, the program's bubble is pierced, like when a case involving the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith made the Supreme Court.

"We had to really hustle to find a picture of her," Winslow admitted.

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