Cable News: CNN outfoxed

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When another President Bush launched an offensive in the Middle East, Americans tuned in to CNN to follow the coverage of the Gulf War.

The 1991 war became a defining moment for CNN. The post-9/11 coverage is marking a similar arrival for News Corp.'s Fox News Channel, the CNN challenger.

Fox News' Chairman-CEO Roger Ailes has done what no one thought he could when the network was founded in 1996: overtake CNN. Through February, Nielsen Media Research ratings show Fox News Channel in 2002 has pulled significantly ahead in prime time with a 0.9 average household rating to CNN's 0.7. Fox News Channel also leads with an prime time average of 906,000 households and 1.2 million viewers compared with CNN's 727,000 and 886,000. MSNBC has a 0.3 rating average with 275,000 households and 336,000 viewers. MSNBC was also launched in 1996.

In household ratings for total day, Fox News Channel and AOL Time Warner's CNN both posted a 0.5 rating average, but Fox News Channel had 539,000 average households and 656,000 viewers, compared with CNN's 487,000 and 550,000. MSNBC trails significantly.

"I think it's another example of historically how cable finds underserved audiences, and rightly or wrongly there's been a general perception that news is somewhat liberal in its outlook. That may not be true, but it's a perception," said Tim Brooks, senior VP-research, Lifetime network, jointly owned by Hearst Corp. and Walt Disney Co. "Fox seems to be like the kid in the school room who doesn't care what you think about what he says. And that's a refreshing change-not for everybody, but for a substantial audience."

On a wider prism, Nielsen Media Research figures show the 9/11 events have produced new interest in cable news. In the six months before 9/11, CNN averaged a 0.3 rating in total day, while Fox and MSNBC posted 0.2s; in the six months after 9/11 CNN posted a 0.8 in total day, while Fox had a 0.6 and MSNBC a 0.4. (Web news also is growing; see P. 38.)

On the ad-sales front, Nielsen Monitor-Plus data for the month of December, the most recent month available, show Fox News led with $34 million, followed by CNN at $30.9 million and MSNBC at $30.4 million.

ABC's much-talked-about decision to pursue David Letterman for its 11:35 p.m. time slot to replace "Nightline" can in part be attributed to the endless cycle of news on the cable networks. By the time Ted Koppel takes to the airwaves, most hot topics have gone through a 360-degree reporting cycle. (See MediaWorks, P. 39.)


If "Nightline" goes, Mr. Koppel could become the latest subject of bidding wars among the three cable networks, which, while riding post 9/11 bumps in viewership and slugging away at each other, have propelled the overall increase in cable news ratings in 2002. (A CNN spokeswoman said the network would be "thrilled to have [Mr. Koppel] but it's not even clear if he's available.")

The cable news networks seem to have mastered shifting into hard-news mode at a moment's notice. But they grapple with what has been referred to as the "CNN problem:" what to air when the hottest news is a cold front in the South.

So far in 2002, it appears as if Fox has developed the most successful formula.

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