Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On RT being the "Most Popular Foreign News Channel in Key US Cities"

This post was supposed to have been up last week, but I was waiting for a note from Nielsen, secretly hoping that they might, eventually, respond. They did not. So, here we go.

In early June, Kim Elliott, arguably the leading blogger on international broadcasting, had a post linking to a story in The Moscow Times, stating that "Russia Today [is the] Most Popular Foreign News Channel in Key U.S. Cities" in 2011. According to the article:

Viewership in New York alone nearly tripled, while the channel also made significant advances in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the report by media analysis company Nielsen said, RIA-Novosti reported Tuesday.
The report said RT beat out EU's Euronews, France 24, Germany's Deutsche Welle, the Middle East's Al Jazeera English, Japan's NHK World and China's CCTV News in the five cities in the report, though the BBC was not included in the analysis. In New York, RT's weekly audience was nine times that of NHK World, and in Chicago, daily viewership was three times higher than Al Jazeera's.

Given the nature of the claim, the unclear phrasing of it all, as well as the fact that no non-Russian news services seemed to have picked it up, I believe it would be wise to give it all a second thought (and a second, much closer, look).

Image from Lenta.ru

The Moscow Times article was citing RIA-Novosti as a source. The actual piece on RIA-Novosti, however, wasn't very helpful, either. It referred to the Nielsen survey, again, quoted RT's Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and the network's very own statement about its popularity.

Simonyan didn't hide her excitement on Twitter, either:

There was, also, a press release (but of course!) by RT itself, on May 30, announcing its supposed success. Here's an excerpt:
"The growth of our audience in the largest cities in the US, especially in New York and Washington, DC, is a clear proof that we have firmly established ourselves as an alternative to the American mainstream media. More and more residents of the US require access to new information and different perspective, which they find at RT,” – said RT Editor-in-Chief of Margarita Simonyan.
According to Nielsen, the average RT viewer based in one of the 5 surveyed American cities is a male aged between 35 and 49. While most hold an undergraduate degree, over 20 percent of RT viewers have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. as well. In terms of occupation, most American RT viewers are either business owners, self-employed, or are employed in management roles.
More than 85 million residents of America’s key metropolitan areas receive RT around the clock via cable and satellite networks. RT expanded its audience in the United States dramatically in 2011 by being included in the packages of major cable networks in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as Dish Network, one of America’s largest pay-TV operators with nationwide coverage.
Nielsen carried out the survey in the fall of 2011, polling a total of over 10,000 residents in Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

(I wonder how many million people live in those cities. Combined. Or how they selected the "surveyed" sample...)

Searching for further details, I came across several other news pieces (besides those linking back to The Moscow Times or RIA Novosti, that is): one on Russia Briefing and a snippet on Voice of Russia, citing "TASS". None of these added much substance, however. I couldn't find any of those statistics or more information about the nature of the survey itself or the population sampled on Nielsen's website, either, so I decided to write to them directly, with a request for disclosure (oh, naive me..). I received a short response:

Nielsen makes limited data available and this request falls outside of our standard practices. However, please contact our Media Prospects department at xxxxxxxx@xxx.com [redacted] for more information regarding this request as well as data availability and pricing.
They never responded to my second email.

Oh, and just by the way, I should also point out that such sweeping (and stunning) statements are not limited to the US only. RT claims "it reaches over 430 million people globally or 22 percent of all cable subscribers worldwide in at least 100 countries," while it is apparently "the most interesting international news channel" in Canada, with popularity surpassing that of Sky News.

One of their latest promos. Just stumbled upon it.

I don't know if anyone actually took all this seriously, but there might be a need for a reminder: this should be taken with a grain of salt, as the surveys and their results are questionable at best. RT might offer interesting insights into what the Kremlin might want the international public to hear and see, but it cannot claim prominence based on the mere numbers of those who tune in to watch it (or, should I say, tune in to take another look at its hosts???), especially when those numbers don't seem to be reliable or representative in the first place.

After all, what really matters is the attitudes and perspectives that might (or might not) have been changed by watching RT, and these statistics do not and cannot "measure" that. What is more, given the issue of selective perception and possible "negative elaboration" to avoid cognitive dissonance, RT will have to actually do much more to win over American hearts and minds (or Canadian ones, for that matter). It cannot "succeed", while functioning as an alternative - and a foreign-paid alternative, at that - to FOX News.

Food for thought.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with... RT's "Guide to Russian Women".

1 comment:

  1. Lena, Thank you for this important piece. We all know what Churchill said: "Never trust any statistics that you didn't forge yourself." Meanwhile, your readers might be interested in my blog entry on the subject you cover so well: http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2012/06/propaganda-public-diplomacy-and-most.html