Almost three out of four U.S. adults (71%) watch local television news and 65% view network newscasts over the course of a month, according to Nielsen data from February 2013. While 38% of adults watch some cable news during the month, cable viewers—particularly the most engaged viewers—spend far more time with that platform than broadcast viewers do with local or network news.1
On average, the cable news audience devotes twice as much time to that news source as local and network news viewers spend on those platforms. And the heaviest cable users are far more immersed in that coverage—watching for more than an hour a day—than the most loyal viewers of broadcast television news. Even those adults who are the heaviest viewers of local and network news spend more time watching cable than those broadcast outlets.
[T]he deeper level of viewer engagement with cable news may help to explain why cable television—despite a more limited audience—seems to have an outsized ability to influence the national debate and news agenda. Previous Pew Research Center data have shown that in prime time—when the audience is the largest—cable talk shows tend to hammer away at a somewhat narrow news agenda that magnifies the day’s more polarizing and ideological issues. The Nielsen data make it clear that cable’s audience is staying for a healthy helping of that content.
In one finding that may seem counterintuitive in an era of profound political polarization, significant portions of the Fox News and MSNBC audiences spend time watching both channels. More than a third (34%) of those who watch the liberal MSNBC in their homes also tune in to the conservative Fox News Channel. The reverse is true for roughly a quarter (28%) of Fox News viewers. Even larger proportions of Fox News and MSNBC viewers, roughly half, also spend time watching CNN, which tends to be more ideologically balanced in prime time. (The channel’s new version of Crossfire, which debuted on Sept. 9, follows its formula of delivering opinion from both the left and right.)