The general drift for cable news’ Big Three — or Big Two and a Half, given MSNBC’s precipitous recent decline — has been downward. Cable audiences peaked during the 2008 election and have been eroding since. The 2012 election was something of a watershed; news audiences typically perk up during election years, but in 2012 they failed to come around.
Since 2009, the median daily audience for Fox, CNN and MSNBC has fallen 19 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The overall decline during prime-time hours for all three has been steeper, 26 percent.
Even Fox News, long the king of cable news, is no longer booming. It lost 2 percent of its overall audience last year, according to Pew, and is off 19 percent from its prime-time peak in 2009.
The increasingly cloudy picture suggests that cable news has seen its best days. The news networks’ audience grew steadily throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as more households signed up for cable and satellite TV. But that avenue is closed; there are few new homes to wire.
At the same time, fast Internet connections have exploded, shifting the demand for instantaneous news from TV sets to smartphones, tablets and desktop computers. With its lengthy, linear storytelling style, cable news seems poorly adapted for social media, which emphasizes bite-size, shareable stories and clips.
Indeed, cable news’ problem isn’t the news part as much as the cable. While “cord-cutting” — the much-hyped trend of dropping or never getting a pay TV subscription — remains a distant threat, there aren’t many signs that young people, in particular, prefer a TV screen in the living room to the screen in their pocket. The networks have recognized this change for years and have been beefing up their Web operations to position themselves for it.