Fight for viewers: CNN, Fox go on stump as conventions near

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The Kerry-Bush presidential dogfight is shaping up as the backdrop to a nastier, more intense battle: the one between Fox and CNN for political-convention viewers.

The major political conventions are fast approaching and broadcast networks continue to ease out of live coverage, leaving the bulk of the heavy lifting to PBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and C-Span. With a chance to capture a larger audience, the two biggest cable news networks are aggressively firing barbs at one another.

For CNN, the July 26 Democratic convention in Boston is the latest focus of a promotional campaign that insinuates Fox's coverage is biased. Two 15-second promo ads tout CNN as "America's campaign headquarters." One features a jigsaw puzzle and tells viewers, "To put together the political puzzle this election year, you'll want more than just one angle." Another features a Rubik's Cube and asks, "How can you understand the twists and turns of Election 2004 unless you get the whole picture? Trust CNN to cover all sides."

A CNN spokeswoman last week described the ads as "not a response to anything," but rather, "an assertion of CNN's long-held values and our longstanding commitment to providing viewers all sides of a story."

Fox last week began its own campaign, tweaking CNN for being behind in reporting that Sen. John Kerry had named Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. (Fox reported the news minutes before CNN did.)

One spot declares: `"America's campaign headquarters'? Get real. While CNN was caught napping, Fox News Channel was breaking news of the Edwards announcement. That's why more Americans turn to the channel of political record. Fox News Channel. America's newsroom."

Marty Ryan, Fox News Channel's exec VP-political coverage, said Fox will increase convention coverage 30% compared to 2000. "The climate of the country has changed. The appetite is there."

David Bohrman, CNN's VP-news and production and Washington bureau chief, also believes viewership could rise, especially if the broadcast networks continue to pull back. "This is the first election cycle since 9/11 and the nature of the country has changed. There is interest."

Ratings slipping

Overall ratings for convention coverage appear to be falling. According to Nielsen Media Research, 15.3 million people tuned into the Democratic convention and 14 million for the Republican convention in 2000, though the numbers don't include people watching either PBS or C-Span coverage. The GOP convention's 13.9 overall rating was the lowest of any political convention going back at least 40 years, according to Nielsen.

Still, for the news channels, the conventions represent not only an opportunity to strut before their target audience of news junkies, but also to demonstrate the value of the networks to advertisers. "Other networks have Super Bowls, or World Series. It's the one big ticket we have," said Greg D'Alba, chief operating officer-CNN sales and marketing.

CNN offers on-air talent for advertisers' convention-related events. DaimlerChrysler is an exclusive category sponsor on CNN's election coverage and has a major sponsorship role on Fox News Channel. CNN's election-programming sponsors, such as Samsung, get ads on various CNN platforms, including its airport network.

Paul Rittenberg, senior VP, Fox News Channel, said his network will offer similar activities and will bring its reporters to an event. "It's the big bang for us," he said. Fox has signed Wachovia and Norfolk Southern in addition to Chrysler for its election coverage, including the conventions.

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