News

Head To Head To Head

4/05/2008 2:00 AM Eastern

While the would-be presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties bitterly battled during the primaries, the cable news networks were also slugging it out in the first quarter. Last week, the initial results came in.

Fox News Channel remained the king of all-news channels, enjoying a gain of 211,000 viewers in primetime, placing fifth among all cable networks in average total audience.

But CNN, the second-ranked news network, came out first in the key news demographic — adults 25 to 54 — for the first time since 2001. In addition, Anderson Cooper 360 for the first time won its 10 p.m. time slot in that same desirable demographic, another CNN coup.

But the network's victories could be short-lived. An overriding question remains to be answered: Can CNN ride the coattails of widespread interest in 2008's presidential campaign for the rest of the year, or will it only see a primary-season spike in viewership?

“I congratulate them on their bragging rights, but it's really a question of what's going to happen going forward,” said Katz Television Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll.

CNN and third-place MSNBC saw significant increases in total primetime viewers in the first quarter. CNN averaged 1.25 million primetime viewers, up 64% versus a year ago, while MSNBC was watched by 780,000, a 57% increase, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied last week by Disney-ABC Television Group.

But they still trailed far behind Fox News Channel, which delivered 1.8 million viewers, up 13% from the year-ago quarter.

CNN and MSNBC officials argue that their intensified political coverage is fueling their ratings gains, and that viewers who have tuned in to them will like what they see and stick around.

ISSUES PERSIST

Viewership could drop after Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois complete their fight for the Democratic nomination and there's a straight-up Democratic vs. Republican contest through the Nov. 4 general election. But even after that, the No. 2 and 3 news channels maintain that the hot-button issues for the political season so far — like the economy, the Iraq war and health care — are not going to be quickly resolved. So, CNN and MSNBC officials contend, viewer interest in those topics won't wane.

“The underlying causes behind the massive interest in this election are still with us and the audience is still going to care,” CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein said.

But skeptics say that CNN's gains during the primary season reflect the unchangeable nature of the beast for pure all-news channels: Viewership peaks during breaking-news events and plummets afterward.

Brad Adgate, Horizon Media senior vice president and director of research, was working at CNN in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War when the news channel's ratings soared. But after the war, the viewership dropped, and he expects the same now in terms of CNN maintaining its first-quarter growth.

“You have to look at this, for now, as more of an anomaly than as a trend,” Adgate said. “Obviously, CNN would like to build on this … I know that they made inroads, but it was kind of an unusual quarter. You could plan it [because of the debate schedule] and it was a wide-open election. CNN was very smart to take advantage of that.”

But Adgate asked: “Does it have coattails? Will that extend to the second and third quarter? That's going to be the proof of whether the sands have shifted in cable-news networks. I'm not so sure that is going to be the case. But my gut reaction is that it probably won't be.”

In the first quarter, CNN's numbers were dramatically — and artificially — inflated by the four live primary debates it aired, a circumstance that CNN won't enjoy going forward this year, at least one skeptic contends.

SKEWED AVERAGES

“Averages are absolutely skewed when the debates are added,” said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of Tyndallreport.com.

“Then you're not talking about the popularity of their regular programming, the popularity of Anderson Cooper or Lou Dobbs,” he said. “In the primary season, where the debates are exclusive, as opposed to the general election, where they're carried by everybody, you have just everybody tuning to your channel because you happen to host the debate. It has nothing really to do with your journalism.”

CNN had three of the top-five ad-supported cable programs in the first quarter. Its Jan. 31 California Democratic presidential candidate debate was the No. 2 telecast for the quarter, with 8.4 million viewers.

MSNBC was also in the top five, with its Feb. 26 telecast of the Ohio Democratic debate, which drew 7.8 million viewers.

As a result, last week CNN was trumpeting the fact that it had outperformed Fox News Channel in a series of key demographics, most importantly advertisers' dream audience for news, adults 25 to 54.

CNN drew 444,000 viewers in that age group in the first quarter in primetime, an 87% increase. Fox News Channel gained 10%, drawing 430,000, according to Disney-ABC's analysis. MSNBC attracted 325,000 viewers 25 to 54, a 66% gain.

But without its January and February debates, CNN's numbers in that demographic dropped precipitiously in March. If available seven-day digital video recorder data is included for March, MSNBC (which was boosted by its Feb. 26 Ohio debate, because Nielsen counted that date as part of March) was actually ahead of CNN in that 25-to-54 demo in primetime, with 336,000 viewers versus 333,000. Fox News topped them both, with 400,000, according to Disney-ABC.

With just straight live-plus-same-day data, CNN and MSNBC tied in adults 25 to 54 in March, with both averaging 333,000, versus Fox News Channel's 399,000, according to Nielsen data from MSNBC.

Fox News Channel declined to comment for this story. But the News Corp.-owned network faces challenges in the younger demographics because its audience skews older, with its median age in primetime over 65, according to Nielsen data supplied by Disney-ABC Television.

“They still win in the over-55 crowd,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, parent company of CNN. “And while we look to get every viewer we can, we have been focused on the under-55 crowd for a long time now, and it's paying off.”

Wakshlag also maintained that CNN's numbers in the first quarter were strong outside the debates.

“When we cover the election returns, we did phenomenally well,” he said. “People are looking to CNN for that kind of coverage.”

NO BIG SURPRISE

But for Tyndall, the take-away about CNN's big gains during the debate period in the first quarter is no big surprise.

“It just reaffirms what CNN has always claimed and which has always been true, which is that people who are not regular cable-news watchers will go to CNN when there is a big story happening,” Tyndall said.

“That happened with [Hurricane] Katrina [in 2005] or with the war, or anything,” he said. “The primary campaign in January and February — Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday — was a big enough news story that people who would not normally watch any of three cable news channels tuned in, and what they tuned into was CNN.”

CNN has expanded its political coverage for the election, and the network has been invigorated, according to Klein. For example, NBC News alum Campbell Brown in March began anchoring an 8 p.m. show, Election Center.

In general, Klein said he expects CNN's ratings to continue going up as the year goes on.

“An awful lot of viewers who have sampled CNN in the past quarter have seen a brand new kind of CNN, a more energized and passionate and vibrant news network than any other cable channel,” Klein said. “We are aggressively independent. And we've got more incisive analysts and well-versed correspondents than anybody else. So I think over the long haul you'll see the trend continue.”

Sam Armando, Starcom Worldwide's senior vice president and director of video research, said the numbers demonstrate a comeback by CNN. “When Fox surged past CNN, a lot of things you read — and maybe just believed in the back of your head — was that time had passed CNN by, and they're being replaced and they really weren't going to be the news player they were,” he said.

“It just shows that the networks can reinvent themselves and stay the course and … have their ebbs and flows and show some life as well, because I think a lot of people counted out CNN years ago when Fox really took hold,” he said.

THIRD-PLACE VICTOR

MSNBC, which uses the tagline “the place for politics,” was also claiming victory, saying the news race has now turned into a head-to-head-to-head competition

“Basically the cable-news race has tightened to a three-cable channel race,” said Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior vice president who is in charge of MSNBC. “Fox used to dominate, and CNN was a strong second, and we were a third. I think we finally got our sh--t together, and we're coming on strong.”

It goes beyond the numbers, according to Griffin.

“MSNBC has got that kind of buzz right now,” he said. “I go into gyms and public places and Jet Blue [airplanes] and I see MSNBC on monitors that I never saw before.”

Last fall, MSNBC moved from its Secaucus, N.J., headquarters to Rockefeller Center, and that has helped spark more participation from NBC News talent on the sister cable service, which has really bolstered MSNBC's election coverage, according to Griffin.

In just one example, Tim Russert's weekend show, which had aired on CNBC, was shifted to MSNBC. In addition, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory is now doing a 6 p.m. weekday show for the cable channel called The Race for the White House, which replaced Tucker.

According to Griffin, Gregory “stepped up and said, 'Not only am I going to do my network job, I want an hour on MSNBC.' He raised his hand said. 'I want to do this.' ”

MSNBC was even the center of a big news story itself in February when reporter David Shuster was criticized by the Clinton campaign for saying that daughter Chelsea had been “pimped out” for her mother's election effort. MSNBC ended up suspending Shuster.

Griffin declined to comment again on that incident, but said, “We're being written about. We're being talked about. People want to be on our programs. We're even criticized. The campaigns are all over us, in a positive, negative way.”

MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann at 8 p.m. finished the quarter up 41% in total viewers, averaging 1 million, besting CNN's Brown.

“The big difference going forward is that we reached a level that we never reached before,” Griffin said. “We've got an elite player in Keith Olbermann. We got a daily audience that we've never had. These are people that aren't just flipping by. It's appointment television. ”

Fox's The O'Reilly Factor was also up in total viewers in the first quarter, by 11% to average 2.7 million, while CNN's Election Center jumped 70%, to 956,000 viewers.

In a turn of events no one could have predicted a year ago, the race for the Democratic presidential nominee, between Obama and Clinton, became a cliffhanger. This may have given CNN and MSNBC an edge, if viewers see Fox coverage as being more conservative and Republican.

“On the one hand, you've got to say this gives Fox pause for worry, because their ideological tactic — which gave them a lot of success during the Bush years — may be coming back to bite them as the pendulum swings,” Tyndall said. “On the other hand, the success of CNN and MSNBC is inflated in the average because of the distorting effect of the debates.”

Since its inception, Fox News Channel has staunchly positioned itself as politically impartial, with its taglines, “We Report, You Decide” and “Fair and Balanced.” One of its more popular programs, Hannity & Colmes, pairs a conservative host, Sean Hannity, with a “hard-hitting liberal,” Alan Colmes. Other voices include legal analyst and current affairs interviewer Greta Van Susteren; and Bill O'Reilly, whose show, The O'Reilly Factor, is repeatedly the highest-rated show on any of the three news networks.

The end result may be “fair and balanced” news and commentary, but Tyndall believes the network's audience skews conservative.

“Fox has been identified as the voice of the Bush administration, granted,” Griffin said. “The administration has more often than not gone on Fox than any place else.”

CNN and MSNBC alike deny that they benefit more than Fox News because of the bitter Democratic Clinton-Obama battle, or that their audiences skew more liberal or Democratic. Griffin said MSNBC has “a variety of voices,” with Olbermann's anti-Bush and anti-war position just one of them. Griffin noted that Chris Matthews is doing an hourlong show with Sen. John McCain, for example.

“I don't think our viewership is just Democrats,” Griffin said. “And I don't think all Fox's viewers are Republicans, because I think they [Fox News Channel] have interesting ideas. I've always thought that. But I think they're getting a little tired, and we're fresher and we're newer.”

Klein maintained that CNN is neutral politically, playing it “straight down the middle.” In his view, Fox News and MSNBC each has a “spin” or slant on the news and political events.

“They are clearly on the right and on the left, and that leaves a very wide middle,” Klein said. “Where America's head is at right now is that they just want answers. We're in a post-partisan period, where the audience is suspicious of the political spinners on either side.”

September