Now that Brian Williams has been suspended by NBC for six months—and I'd be really surprised if he gets his job back at the end of that—my younger readers might be wondering why this is a big deal. After all, isn't he just some guy who reads the news to your grandparents in between ads for Viagra and Lipitor? Well yes, but it wasn't always that way. Network news anchors used to be the absolute kings of the American media universe, with audiences that today are almost unimaginable. It still may be the most prestigious job in American journalism, in part because there are only three of them, but it's not what it once was. Brian Williams, for instance, was paid a measly $10 million a year, while Today show co-host Matt Lauer makes twice as much. And how many Americans could name all three network anchors? The days when everybody knew Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are gone; I'd bet that CBS's Scott Pelley and ABC's David Muir could walk down many streets without being recognized.
So how far have they fallen? In 2013, the audience for the top-rated NBC Nightly News averaged 8.4 million viewers per night; the three network news programs combined for 22.6 million viewers. That's a lot of people, but it's less than half of what they garnered in 1980. I've made these charts using data from multiple versions of Pew's State of the News Media report:
Not only is that a precipitous decline, it's even worse when you consider that the population has been growing over time. So in 1980, almost one in four Americans (counting both children and adults) tuned in to a network news broadcast on any given night. Today it's around one in fourteen.
The biggest reason for the decline was the advent and spread of cable television. When there were only three channels, everybody watched the news because there was nothing else on. That included people who cared about the world, and people who were just bored. Once they got cable, the latter group drifted off to other channels, and then cable news gave other options to the first group too, and then finally the Internet came along. Network news is still profitable, and its audiences are larger than any of the cable news channels, but it's a shadow of its former self.