RATINGS BUMPS HAVE CNN, FOX, MSNBC CLAIMING VICTORY: ALL-MONICA/ALL-THE-TIME FEEDS AMERICANS' FASCINATION WITH CLINTON AFFAIR
President clinton's integrity and the American public's patience weren't the only things put to the test during the Year of the Leer, more commonly known as the ongoing drama of the Monica Lewinsky story.
Indeed, the months between January 1998 and February 1999 may be remembered as much for media coverage of the story as the story itself, particularly on cable TV.
From the first news of the Monicagate scandal through the close of the impeachment trial, the three 24-hour cable news networks were plunged into their first prolonged competition since October 1997. That's when the Fox News Channel joined CNN, a still-young MSNBC, Headline News in the cable news ratings race.
The competition was at its peak in prime time, with CNBC's solid nightly news and talk shows added to the mix.
LIFE AFTER LEWINSKY
The aftermath of the Lewinsky coverage had CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all spinning numbers at a dizzying clip, each claiming specific victories over their competitors.
The bottom line: CNN remains the clear leader in 24-hour news. MSNBC is in second place in total day ratings, while Fox is second during prime time. Significantly, all three dipped in total day ratings as the Lewinsky story and the impeachment trial drew to a close.
Coverage of the Lewinsky saga offered "another lesson reminding us how hungry a portion of viewers are for such ongoing news coverage," says David Marans, a senior partner at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York. But he notes that the ratings decline aftermath is typical. "When the big story is over, the networks that benefited from it find themselves back where they began," he says.
But the happy memories linger on for the newscasters and their advertisers.
HUNGRY FOR NEWS
"Obviously, we enjoyed the ratings swell that occurred last year," says MSNBC VP-General Manager Erik Sorenson. "We were able to gather a lot of good will with our advertisers and put ourselves on the map, extend our brand and get a lot of sampling."
At Fox News, the overall value of its Lewinsky coverage "was getting viewers to sample our programs," says Senior VP-Ad Sales Paul Rittenberg. "Hopefully, they liked what they saw and will stay with us."
That appears to be happening: Since the close of the impeachment trial and the escalation of the crisis in Kosovo, Fox News continued to enjoy prime-time ratings increases, while CNN and MSNBC declined, suggesting that some viewers who sampled Fox News during the Monicagate coverage stuck with it.
"Some people found the Fox News Channel [for the first time] during the Lewinsky coverage. These people didn't know it was there before the Lewinsky story. There had been some confusion over the name of the network. . . but the identity has become more obvious to viewers," says Kathy Van Lieshout, assistant media director with Starcom USA, Chicago.
STILL SHOWING EFFECT
"It's a little cloudy because some of the prime-time ratings we're getting may still be Lewinsky-related," Mr. Rittenberg admits. "The story hasn't dropped off the face of the earth."
Nevertheless, Fox News' prime time ratings and overall ratings "are vastly higher at this point, after the trial than a year ago," he says.
Of course, the TV news arena extends beyond cable, and that's where last year's big ratings story lies, according to CNN President of Sales Larry Goodman.
"Collectively, we've all hurt broadcast," he says, adding that his network's ratings were up 21% during the last year. "The bottom line is that cable news is not eroding cable news. Cable news is eroding broadcast news."
Despite his overall bullishness on behalf of cable news, Mr. Goodman insists much of Fox News's and MSNBC's ratings growth during their Lewinsky coverage came about as a result of increased distribution for both networks.
CNN "grew because our audience actually grew," he maintains.
CUT INTO BROADCAST NUMBERS
Mr. Rittenberg agrees the overall growth of cable news ratings may be coming at the expense of broadcast. "CNN's ratings have not gone up, but they haven't gone down, either," he observes. "Both MSNBC's and our audience appear to be coming from somewhere else. I think that's where the [networks'] nightly news audience is melting away to." But he dismisses the notion that Fox News' ratings growth is primarily the result of subscriber gains during the last year.
About 20%-25% "of our 125% prime-time ratings growth is subscriber growth," he explains. "We've looked at local ratings in markets where we've been on since launch and they confirm that information."
Meanwhile, CNBC moved through all of 1998 and into 1999 with ratings increases in total day and prime time, and, unlike the all-news networks, didn't experience any ratings losses post-Lewinsky.
Of course, CNBC is best described as two networks: a business and personal finance network by day and a news-talk hybrid in prime time.
"For all practical purposes, prime time is daytime on CNBC," says CNBC President Bill Bolster. "It really represents a modest amount of our revenue right now." (CNBC daytime, Mr. Bolster adds, "is the highest CPM network on TV.")
Nevertheless, he says coverage of the Lewinsky scandal continued to brand "Rivera Live," hosted by Geraldo Rivera, and "Hardball," hosted by Chris Matthews.
"Our strategy was to make ['Hardball'] the equivalent of the Sunday morning shows, and [Mr. Matthews has] done a very good job of that," Mr. Bolster says. "As sampling came about, viewers stuck."
With its heavy emphasis on business news, CNBC also has cashed in on stock market ticket excitement over the last year, with ratings increases up 31.3% in the fourth quarter during the height of stock market mania.
"Ratings at CNBC have been really strong. That's a problem for the other guys. CNBC saw a ratings increase of 39% from January 1998 through the following January," says Derek Baine, a senior analyst with Paul Kagan Associates.
The length of the Lewinsky coverage resulted in a welcome boost for every news channel's sales efforts.
"From a sales perspective it's been great for" Fox News, Mr. Rittenberg says. "We were able to use the Lewinsky ratings to pay off some liabilities we had built up before the story broke. We were obviously able to raise our estimates and our pricing pretty substantially over the past six months. We're actually guaranteeing less than we're doing in prime time."
Unlike new kids MSNBC and Fox News, CNN has been through the highs and lows of major news coverage before. "We try to guarantee our audiences fairly conservatively," Mr. Goodman explains. "When news spikes, very often we overdeliver, and when news is soft, very often we underdeliver. What we hope for is that in the given course of a quarter or a half-year or a year that it balances out.
"There are some advertisers who come to us specifically to buy us during periods of peak news," he continues. "We call them instant or breaking news advertisers. There are certain categories that tend to use CNN more extensively during periods of peak news. The movie category is probably the best example. Some pharmaceuticals have instant news packages with us."
Virtually all of its instant news advertisers are also regular advertisers on CNN, Mr. Goodman explains. "We agree on a [cost per thousand] in advance of the event, and then whatever the rating is we back it to a unit price.
"So there is no unit price negotiation. It is simply performance based on a predetermined CPM. [An advertiser] may buy a $2 million schedule on CNN as part of an upfront package. They'll then say, 'Here's another $100,000, heavy us up during the news peaks.'
"From our vantage point it's advantageous because it obviously captures the full value for the audience spike, and we can also count the extra performance towards the total combined guarantee of the upfront plus the instant news package. But as a total percentage of our revenue that's not terribly significant. What is significant is how close to the guarantee we are or how much above the audience guarantee we are."
ADVERTISERS JOIN UP
During the Lewinsky saga, Fox says it added several new advertisers including Johnson & Johnson, Investco, Monster.com and Lucent Technologies.
Although the Lewinsky story was arguably the longest-running major news story since the Simpson saga in 1994-95, Mr. Goodman notes that "O.J. was more consistently in the news. The Lewinsky story had more peaks and valleys.
"There were a couple of times when Lewinsky almost faded and then came roaring back. O.J. was pretty consistent throughout.
"O.J.'s long-running consistency changed the way CNN did business," Mr. Goodman recalls. "We did in fact raise our ratings estimates and our agencies were fully in agreement with that. Nobody asked why we were doing it. They basically said, 'We see your ratings have doubled and you should be selling more aggressively.' "
Coming off so heady a year, the three news networks are all ramping up their efforts to maintain their heightened audience awareness and hold onto viewers.
It wasn't long before the Kosovo crisis began, once again drawing viewers to the networks' coverage of the NATO bombing and ethnic Albanian humanitarian