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The Last Gasp Of The GRP

This week, both iSpot and Nielsen introduced new impressions-based cross-platform measurement systems, aimed at a television industry that’s rapidly moving from linear to streaming and is never going back.

And yet in a parallel universe, there is much debate and discussion over the nightly GRP-based ratings of the various cable news shows in the post-Trump era.

Leaving those of us who cover the industry and/or live in it to shake our collective heads in surprise.

It’s like watching the last gasps of a dying empire.

But to be clear, cable news is dying because cable TV is dying. 

When Paramount+ and Discovery+ launch early next year, there will be nine “Flixes”, multibillion dollar streaming services. That means that there will be more and better programming on streaming for less money than on cable. 

Which is not to say that tens of millions of subscribers are going to abandon traditional pay TV en masse once they figure that out. But the number of streaming only households (FKA “cord cutters”) is going to grow rapidly over the next three years or so, especially once the sports leagues resume their regularly scheduled seasons and sports rights on streaming in general get figured out.

Which means that there won’t be nearly as many people left to watch all those cable news services and the people that are watching will be considerably older, poorer and less tech savvy than the ones who’ve left (something advertisers won’t find reassuring) and that as the number of people who abandon cable continues to grow exponentially with each passing year, cable news networks will be left with lower and less impressive ratings across the board, something advertisers won’t like either.

This is not to say that all the current cable news providers are Dead Men Walking. If anything, the opposite is likely true: most all of them are part of a parent company that also owns a Flix and/or a FAST: ABC News and Hulu, CBS News and Paramount+, CNN and HBO Max, MSNBC, CNBC, NBCNews and Peacock, Fox News and Tubi. So they won’t be orphans in the new ecosystem.

The question, though, is how much demand will there be for 24-hour TV news services in the years to come.

We’ve heard a lot this month about who is winning the “coveted 25-54 demographic.” But the fact is that most cable news viewers are considerably older–the average age for all the main services is over 60.

It may be that there isn’t much need for cable news services (or their streaming equivalents) at all, that younger audiences prefer to get their news online, via social media, websites and podcasts. (To wit, the New York Times “The Daily” podcast has more subscribers than the paper itself.) 

If nothing else, viewers won’t have access to all the various services, only the ones available on the services they subscribe to.

Looking into TV[R]EV’s very own crystal ball, I can see a future where personality-driven opinion shows (“newsertainment”) like Rachel Maddow, Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper are available daily on whatever Flix has signed them up, but 24-hour TV news is primarily available on the FASTs as part of a “News” category that combines streams from national and local news outlets, a combination of live and pre-recorded segments where viewers can still flip from one channel to the next.

The real action, however, will be on the websites of the major news services, including traditionally TV-based services (CNN), traditionally print-based services (WaPo) and newcomers (Axios). Those sites will feature a mix of video (live and pre-recorded), podcasts and text-based articles, updated 24/7. Actual reporters will be the stars of those sites, rather than commentators who can whip up an audience. (That last bit is likely more of a pipe dream than a reality, but one can always hope…)

Point being, that like the GRP-based ratings they are currently fighting over, cable news networks are likely to be a late 20th/early 21st century phenomenon, relegated to trivia contests and “remember whens”.