Holding on to viewers: CNN, Fox, MSNBC vie to stand out in upfront

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With the upfront ad sales market set to kick off next week and news of the Iraq war on the wane, the cable news channels are jockeying to position their wares in the most favorable light for advertisers.

While all of the 24-hour news channels got a ratings bump during the last eight weeks of war news, News Corp.'s Fox News is still the leader in total viewers, while AOL Time Warner's CNN comes in second and MSNBC third. (See chart, this page.) However, in terms of the percentage of increase in total viewers, Fox grew by 237% over last year at the same time, while MSNBC was up 199% and CNN increased 184%.

To hold on to some of this increase, the 24-hour news networks each have their own grand strategy. CNN, in its upfront presentation this year, is pushing the hard-news value of the network, its upscale audience and its reach, while Fox News is hyping its overall growth in viewers. MSNBC, meanwhile, plans to sell its cable offerings alongside its leading broadcast-news properties while emphasizing the entertainment value of a new prime-time news lineup.

personality push

In his pitches to media agencies, Jim Hoffman, senior VP-sales network news and MSNBC, presents a news upfront with a heavy spotlight on personalities like Katie Couric and Matt Lauer and celebrity interviews while pushing a new lineup of opinion programming on MSNBC. The new MSNBC lineup, already airing as a soft launch, is "Hardball with Chris Matthews" at 7 p.m., "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" at 8 p.m., "Jesse Ventura Live" at 9 p.m. and "Scarborough Country" at 10 p.m.

Fox News is also pitching its prime-time line up beginning with "The O'Reilly Factor" at 7 p.m., "Hannity & Colmes" at 9 p.m. and "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" at 10 p.m. CNN is touting stars Paula Zahn, Lou Dobbs and Larry King, and emphasizes its hard-news approach. "Our approach is that we are more news," said Greg D'Alba, exec VP-sales and marketing for CNN. "We are not an opinion, talk-based network."

NBC, however, is doing something the others can't: bridging the gap between broadcast news programming and news on cable by linking up the brand equity of market leader NBC news and its broadcast properties "NBC Nightly News," "The Today Show" and "Meet the Press" to MSNBC.

"NBC is the leader in network news, so that approach is a good idea," said Roy Rothstein, VP-director national broadcast research at Zenith Media in New York. "During big news events there is always a migration to cable news. But when the big events are over, viewers stay with the network."

Paul Rittenberg, senior VP-advertising sales at Fox News, not surprisingly finds fault with the crossover approach. "In the end, my argument is if you're buying `NBC Nightly News,' why buy MSNBC?"

In his pitch, Mr. Hoffman compared audience numbers for "Hardball" against "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune," and the second hour of "The Today Show" against "Regis & Kelly." In all cases, the news comes out on top.

Of course, it's unlikely any of the 24-hour channels will hold onto all their wartime viewers. "They're not going to get them all back," said Rich Hamilton, CEO of ZenithOptimedia Group the Americas. "When the urgency about what is reported lessens, so does the audience."

"Nobody expects to retain all the viewers," Mr. Hoffman said, "You do what you can."

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