The May television ratings period known as "sweeps" has just concluded, and publicists for the top TV stations in the Denver market are boasting about the number of people tuning in. But they're not mentioning how precipitously the number of traditional viewers they're attracting has tumbled in recent decades.
A case in point: The current audience share for the 10 p.m. Monday-Friday broadcast on 9News may be Denver's largest in the time slot yet again, but it's about one-quarter the size it was less than twenty years ago.
Figuring out the number of Denverites watching a particular newscast live over the airwaves or on cable, as opposed to online, can be tricky. But here are the basics.
According to Nielsen, the most prominent company tracking television viewership, Denver is the seventeenth largest market in the country, with 1,589,560 so-called TV homes counted during the 2017-2018 season.
The main metrics used by Nielsen to estimate audiences are ratings and shares. Each rating point translates to approximately 15,896 viewers, or 1 percent of the total, while each share represents the percentage of televisions being used at that time.
In 1999, as originally reported by broadcastingcable.com, 9News's 10 p.m. newscast had the largest audience slice of any Top 40 market in the U.S., recording a staggering 32 share. Its share in May 2018? Nielsen data provided by 9News calculates an 8.03 share — about 25 percent of the 1999 figure — and a rating of 1.98, or just over 31,000 viewers in the 25-54 age range most prized by advertisers.
The digits are even smaller for the other three stations offering up 10 p.m. newscasts on weekdays in Denver. CBS4 came in second during May sweeps, with a 1.10 rating, or what the station itself calculates as 18,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo. Denver 7 comes in next, with a 1.07 rating, with Fox31 finishing with a 0.85 rating.
Once upon a time, the 10 p.m. weeknight newscast was the most highly viewed in Denver, but that's no longer the case. Indeed, 9News does much better in three other major time periods. The real cash cow, comparatively speaking, is its 6 a.m. Monday through Friday program, which collects a whopping 24.74 share. Granted, its rating is 2.19 — higher than at 10 p.m., but translating to only a few thousand more viewers. But the share is more than twice that generated by second-place Fox31, which registers a 10.20 (and a rating of 0.90) — and the shares notched by CBS4, Denver7 and KWGN/CW2 hover in the 6 range.
The ratings and shares for 9News's 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts are higher than those at 10 p.m., too, and double or even triple those of its competitors. But again, the number of 9News viewers is less than 35,000 or so 25- to 54-year-olds in each segment and way lower than they were even ten years ago.
Of course, the Internet has changed the way many of us watch television in general, as well as TV news. In January 2017, Fox31's website clocked 3.46 million unique visitors, followed by 9News (3.28 million), Denver7 (2.27 million) and CBS4 (2 million). Obviously, many of these folks are watching TV news packages produced by the respective stations and reading accompanying text that's often more in-depth than what airs.
But as with print journalism, where ads in physical publications tend to generate more revenue than their online equivalents, broadcast commercials are where the real money is for TV stations. That makes audience fall-off even more concerning — and the decline has been steady.
Comparing today's numbers for 10 p.m. weeknight newscasts to figures from 1998 and 2008, as documented in a February 2008 Denver Post piece, offers stark evidence.
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9News in 1998: 29 share
9News in 2008: 18 share
9News in 2018: 8.03 share
CBS4 in 1998: 23 share
CBS4 in 2008: 12.8 share
CBS4 in 2018: 4.47 share
Denver7 in 1998: 10 share
Denver7 in 2008: 11.2 share
Denver7 in 2018: 4.32 share
Fewer and fewer people are watching late local newscasts the way previous generations of TV viewers did — as a way to catch up on what happened that day before hitting the hay. And those who still do will likely become even rarer as time goes by.