Is TV News Good For You? ‘Nutrition Labels’ Served to Advertisers

Anchors and TV-news producers have long looked to Nielsen ratings to measure the success of their programs. What if another yardstick became available?

NewsGuard, a company that got its start examining the veracity of news content on digital sites and the ways in which it is produced, is making a move to gauge the quality of TV news programing as well. After licensing its reports exclusively to Interpublic Group’s Magna, a large ad-buying firm, for 2022, the company now is in talks with other big Madison Avenue media agencies and advertisers about using its services to determine how accurate and informative big news programs ranging from “CBS Evening News” to “Morning Joe” really are. NewsGuard’s brand safety ratings for 140 cable, streaming, and network television shows and networks will be available to advertising agencies, marketers, and others starting January 2, 2023.

The news genre “has gotten complicated in a way that it wasn’t during Walter Cronkite’s time,” notes Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard’s co-CEO, in an interview.

The company has released sever of its reports, which find two of cable-news’ most popular programs, Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” to be “high risk” for advertisers seeking news programs that, among other things, report on important topics in a responsible manner and present multiple viewpoints. Meanwhile, CNN’s weekday “Inside Politics” and Fox News’ Sunday media-affairs program, “MediaBuzz,” are determined to be “low risk” by the same standards. CBS’ “CBS Evening News” gets one of NewsGuard’s “lowest risk” determinations.

Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and CBS News declined to make executives available for comment.

It remains unclear whether the content analysis — NewsGuard distills its analysis, crafted by journalists, into a “nutrition label” — will have the power to shift millions of dollars in advertising. Still, Interpublic Group will continue to use the guidance. “Having a third party like NewsGuard is helpful for our clients and allows us to support and invest in quality journalism,” says Allie Kallish, executive vice president and managing director of strategic investment and accountability at Magna, in a prepared statement.

In the world of TV news, opinion hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow tend to “rate,” or draw a large audience, while more temperate fare faces more of a challenge. CNN has been hard-pressed to break out from the pack in recent weeks while relying on primetime shows that stick to straight news analysis. NewsNation, a service from Nexstar Media that aims to present a non-partisan slate of programs, has also not garnered bigger crowds.

And yet, there is a cadre of advertisers who have grown squeamish about sponsoring so-called “single host opinion” programs. Others actively block their commercials from appearing alongside certain news stories online that have specific “keywords” that might be tied to controversial topics.

If advertisers grow more concerned about such stuff, millions of dollars could be at issue. CNN is expected to generate $724.5 million in advertising in 2022, according to projections from Kagan, a research unit of S&P Globa Market Intelligence, down 9.3% from the $799.4 million it secured in 2021. MSNBC is projected to capture $638.9 million, according to Kagan, down 8.6% from the $699.7 million it won in 2021. And Fox News Channel is seen snaring nearly $1.24 billion in advertising, according to Kagan, up 1.5% from the $1.22 it generated in the previous year.

NewsGuard, which counts Publicis Groupe; Nicholas Penniman IV, the former publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and former cable executive Leo Hindery among its investors, is offering a different measure of program performance at a moment when advertisers are more prone to consider alternatives.

For decades, Nielsen delivered tabulations of how many people watched a particular program. It still does. But the advent of interactive, broadband-delivered programming has opened up new ways to touch consumers, often via “programmatic” means that allow advertisers to send their pitches to more discrete groups of people. In some cases, advertisers are no longer interested in reaching the most people they can. Instead, they want to find the most people in a particular group that is seen as extremely likely to consider purchasing their goods and services.

Measures of mass viewership may also not be as helpful at a time when many news outlets rely more heavily on opinion programming. Advertisers still have “Nielsen and different versions of Nielsen,” says Steve Brill, co-CEO of NewsGuard, in an interview.  But “in an age of massive controversy about misinformation and disinformation,” the Nielsen data may not be as relevant to a certain group of news sponsors. “That’s really the vacuum we are stepping into.”

A NewsGuard analysis of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — which received a rating of 4 out of 10 — found that while segments “frequently cite credible news reports and interviews with newsmakers, the hosts and guests have conveyed false and misleading information on a range of topics.” NewsGuard also found the show “typically makes little to no effort to convey a variety of perspectives.”

The company’s analysis of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” — which received a rating of 0 out of 10 — found that the program “regularly advances false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims on topics of importance such as COVID-19 and U.S. and international politics.”

Much more to NewsGuard’s liking on Fox News was “MediaBuzz,” which received a rating of 9 out of 10. The program, anchored by Howard Kurtz, “regularly reports stories accurately and discusses news organizations’ coverage in a nuanced manner,” NewsGuard found. CNN’s weekday broadcast of “Inside Politics” won a rating of 9 of 10, with anchor John King found to “include “multiple viewpoints in his reports, mostly through his own summary of dissenting views on a story, and interviews with prominent Republican lawmakers, pollsters, and consultants.”

“CBS Evening News,” which was rated a 10 out of 10, “relies on fact-based stories and interviews with participants in the news as well as subject experts,” and “regularly offers different political viewpoints, largely through interviews with newsmakers and other prominent figures.”

“CBS Evening News” captured nearly $129.7 million in advertising in 2021, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Carlson’s program generated $88.3 million that same year, while “Morning Joe” won $33.1 million. The two cable programs with the best NewsGuard ratings, however, brought in significantly less. CNN’s “Inside Politics” nabbed $4.59 million in 2021, according to Kantar, while Fox News’ “MediaBuzz” lured $3.05 million.

NewsGuard also has its eye on analyzing a new cadre of streaming news programs, the result of launches of services like NBC News Now, Fox Nation, and ABC News Live. “There are shows where ads appear that you and I have never heard of, let alone the advertisers,” says Brill. “There’s quite a different in quality — if you care about quality.” Already, the company has analyzed Newsy, the E.W. Scripps broadband video outlet, rating it 10 of 10, in part because “the network generally avoids opinion-based reporting.”

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