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Television News Plummets In Popularity, Poll Shows

That old suppertime institution, the network evening news, is swiftly losing its popularity, a national poll says. The percentage of people who say they regularly watch the networks’ news programs has fallen by nearly a third in three years.

The survey says television has become a less important source for news in general: viewing of TV magazine shows is down from 43 percent in 1994 to 36 percent now. Local TV news is still popular, but the share of viewers has fallen, from 72 percent last year to 65 percent.

“Television news is in trouble with the American public,” concludes the survey by the Pew Center for The People and The Press, a private, non-partisan research center based in Washington. “Fewer Americans are watching it these days.”

The share of those who said they had watched TV news of any sort network, local or magazine show - “yesterday” slipped considerably. It was 59 percent in the new survey; last June it was 64 percent; as recently as 1994 it had been 74 percent.

And when the question was whether the poll respondent watched the network evening news shows “regularly,” only 42 percent said they did. Three years ago, 60 percent said they did.

By contrast, newspaper readership, which had been in decline in recent years, seems to have stabilized. Fifty percent of those asked if they had read a newspaper yesterday said yes; that was about the same as the 52 percent who said yes in June 1995 and a bit higher than the 45 percent who said yes in March 1995.

Broadcast industry leaders said the survey confirmed a trend observed for years, especially the dropoff in audience for the network evening news programs.

“The other options across the dial have increased explosively,” said David Bartlett, president of the Radio Television News Directors Association. “It stands to reason that the traditional network evening broadcasts would lose some audience. They used to be the only game in town.”

But Bartlett said the Pew Center’s findings of a shrinking overall TV news audience “run counter to every other survey that we’ve seen recently.”

Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, said the dip in news viewing was part of a decline in television viewing in general.

“That’s why we’re doing a Web site, why we’re getting into cable news, why we’re going into a 24-hour interactive system,” he said.

Pew Center Director Andrew Kohut said the decline in television news viewership arises chiefly from a turnoff by young viewers.

“Newspapers have been experiencing this falloff for some time,” he said. “Now it’s television’s turn.”

He cited possible explanations: competition for time from computers; the Cold War’s demise, which made the world seem less threatening; a distrust of politics arising from Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, events that occurred during the formative years of today’s younger adults.

Jack Loftus, a spokesman for Nielsen Media Research, noted that, with almost all of the country now within reach of cable television, “the networks’ numbers have no place to go but down.”

Cable offers 36 networks and when a big story breaks, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, many of the TV magazine shows switch to a breaking news format.

Nielsen rating figures tracked with the survey’s chief finding.

In the 1975-76 winter season, 48 percent of the nation’s TV sets were tuned to the big three commercial networks’ evening newscasts. Ten years later, that figure had fallen to 37 percent. In the 1995-96 season, viewing declined just as dramatically; only 26 percent of sets were tuned to the evening news, Nielsen said.

Among viewers under age 30 in the Pew survey, 64 percent said they were too busy to watch watched network newscasts often. Only 21 percent of those over 50 gave that reason.

The survey also said that people with home computers watch television and read newspapers less than other people, but listen to radio more.

The survey of news viewing patterns, involving 1,751 respondents, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, Pew said.

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