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Capturing the Campaign Spectacle

12/19/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

In the past election year, two figures drove the debate. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry? Perhaps, but a far more celebrated duo also took Americans by their shirt collars and got them to take notice: Fox News Channel and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. To be sure, this year was a pivotal time for all news networks in their quest to gain prominence. Just as 2004 was characterized by a down-to-the-wire presidential race that polarized America, so too was it characterized by these two particular networks. In fact, some say that Fox News and Jon Stewart fueled that polarization among the so-called red and blue states. It wouldn’t have been the same without them. And that’s why they are, for Multichannel News, the Story of the Year.

To say cable channels rose to the occasion this year in covering the presidential elections would be an understatement. Never before has cable’s election coverage been so extensive, resulting in a larger share of the audience than the last time the nation chose its penultimate leader.

Yet among them, Fox News Channel gained an even stronger upper hand than it has had since 2002, when it obtained the No. 1 ratings position among cable news networks across key demographics (25-to-54, 18-to-49 and 18-to-34 year-olds).

While Comedy Central doesn’t compete in the news category, its The Daily Show With Jon Stewart rose to greater prominence, tapping into the zeitgeist with a unique blend of parody and political straight talk. If there’s anything that Fox News and The Daily Show hold in common, it’s the ability to offer information and viewpoints in styles that could only be described as entertaining.

HARD-EDGED FOX

Fox News blends reportage and hard-edged opinion in a manner that is distinctive from all its competitors. The channel’s anchors seem to have perfected a style of delivering both serious and lighter fare with equal panache — swooshing graphics and all.

“I think our journalism is rock-solid,” says Fox News executive producer Bill Shine. “We bring the Fox brand and the Fox style to our political coverage.”

In Shine’s opinion, Fox News has trounced the competition because the other networks refuse to change with the times. “They still do it the way it was in 1968,” he says.

Other channels probably take a great deal of exception to that statement. But it’s hard to argue with the idea that Fox News has tapped into something.

“Fox News doesn’t follow the same framework that media has followed for the last few decades,” says Christine Williams, a professor of government at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. “They have an edge to their news. I call it 'news with an attitude.’ And they’re not apologetic about it.”

Even detractors of Fox News — and there are many — have to admit that the channel has prospered mightily.

In November Fox News claimed, for the first time, the top 11 cable-news shows, pushing even CNN’s tried-and-true Larry King Live to 12th place in the news category.

The Daily Show, meanwhile, doesn’t directly compete with Fox News or any other cable news network. (Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, though, chose to appear on it and shunned Fox News’ No. 1 program, The O’Reilly Factor.)

Under Stewart’s direction in the last few years, The Daily Show has made amazing strides, increasing its viewership by about 34% in 2004 over its 2003 numbers. It now reaches an average of 1.2 million viewers every night. Other achievements include a bestselling book, America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, which was written by Stewart and The Daily Show staff. This month, Publisher’s Weekly named it the Book of the Year. The audio version even received a Grammy nomination in the comedy-album category.

'DAILY’S’ PERFECT STORM

All of this culminated in an election year that boosted awareness of the show nationwide. “Everything just kind of came together this year for us,” says Doug Herzog, Comedy Central’s president. “It just became the perfect storm for The Daily Show.”

Indeed, 2004 was unique. Not only did one of the closest presidential elections in history turn into one of the nastiest, but it was the first election to follow the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, a war in Iraq that started in March 2003 devolved into a messy insurgency in 2004 (or “Mess-o-Potamia,” as The Daily Show calls it in its periodic segments about the war). Swift Boat ads, the “Rather-gate” Bush document scandal, the ridiculous “spin room” circus that followed the presidential debates — 2004 was a year rich in spectacle.

BAD YEAR FOR BIG THREE

In the end, many viewers largely rejected the traditional approach of the broadcast networks and some cable news outlets in favor of other options.

“You’ve got an audience that’s not interested in the traditional media,” says Stephanie Larson, chair of the political science department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “We’re a less patient audience. We have our remote controls. We change a lot faster.”

In other words, people get bored easily these days. And Fox News and The Daily Show seem to do a better job engaging their own viewers, making them feel as if they’re “in” on something special.

Those fed up with big media or the frivolity of politics might flee to The Daily Show for their daily dose of biting satire. Viewers fed up with most cable news or the broadcast networks go to Fox News for a decidedly different take.

Comedy Central is not without other hits, like South Park and Chappelle’s Show. But The Daily Show has given the network some political street cred — if not outright influence. “The Daily Show, under Jon’s leadership, has just exploded,” Herzog says. “It’s a little bit like the backbone of the network.”

In Fox News’s case, success has given Rupert Murdoch’s brainchild the swagger that society affords one who has conquered something against all odds.

Remember Ted Turner’s threat to “squish Rupert like a bug” when Fox News launched in 1996? As CNN goes through myriad management changes and format reversals, his statement has taken on ironic tones. And with Jon Stewart appearing on CNN’s Crossfire to take on the media or ABC’s Nightline to spar with Ted Koppel, it’s hard to know where entertainment stops and news begins.

In 2004, one thing was certain: Viewers are taking it all in.

September