Cable TV 2009

Shifting Sands of Cable-News Landscape Leave Fox on Top

Strong Point of View Works for Ratings, as MSNBC Passes CNN

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NEW YORK ( -- Electing a Democrat to the White House didn't usher in quite the ideological shift in cable-news ratings that played out when Fox surpassed CNN after Sept. 11, during the first term of the Bush administration. What the election seems to be proving, however, is that a strong viewpoint has never been more important to cable news.

Special Report:
Cable TV 2009

In the first quarter of 2009, Fox News increased its prime-time ratings 24% with an average 2.25 million viewers, compared with CNN's 1.13 million (down 10%) and MSNBC's 950,000 (up 22%). However, last month MSNBC beat CNN for the first time in weeknight prime time, averaging 1.15 million total viewers to CNN's 1.12 million. It's the first quantifiable sign that the Obama administration has energized news consumers with strong opinions that skew unapologetically liberal (MSNBC) or conservative (Fox), leaving the more neutral CNN marginalized to the personality-driven shows that propel Fox and MSNBC's prime-time ratings such as "The O'Reilly Factor," "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" and "The Rachel Maddow Show."

The 2008 election cycle also benefited CNN and MSNBC with ad-revenue gains, as both networks achieved some of their highest ratings with their debate and election coverage in the fourth quarter. In 2008, CNN saw a 1.5% increase in measured ad spending to $423.97 million, MSNBC was up 10.9% to $158.7 million, and Fox News slipped 10.2% to $518.5 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

But what's good news for pundits and bloggers is much of the same for marketers, who don't often buy cable news on an isolated basis. "If you're an advertiser and looking to move into the news marketplace, you have to make sure you're getting a balance of where you're putting your money," said Jim Spiropoulos, VP-research for Publicis' MediaVest. "You can't increase your reach by hitting the same political-ideology viewer."

Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for WPP's Group M, said cable news networks' advantage is its DVR-proof ratings for ad skippers. "People are digesting it live, coming in and out of it much like sports. We are now dealing with commercial ratings, which kind of helped equalize that," he said, citing Nielsen's "C3 rating," which measures live TV viewing plus three days of time-shifted viewing on DVRs. "Before, if there was a lot of delayed exposure you were paying for program ratings, which impacted the commercial exposure to a lower level. The metric change has made that less of an issue for cable news."

MSNBC, of course, is enjoying its moment as the No. 2 news network in prime time while the spotlight is still bright. "This is a tremendous moment for MSNBC. We built from the midterm [elections] in 2006 and decided to make ourselves the place for politics and define the channel," network President Phil Griffin said at a press conference at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Cable Show in Washington. "The next bar was to beat CNN. They've got the best brand in news, but we've got quality programming, and the quality programming is finally taking on the brand of CNN."

Fox, for its part, wasted no time in celebrating its chief rival's prime-time woes by issuing a press release with the sub-headline, "CNN Ratings Collapse -- Network Plummets 21% in Prime Time 25-54 During Extraordinary Quarter for Political and Economic News."

Yet in spite of all the brow-beating from its competitors, CNN is using this year's upfront season to tout its reach and the integrated value of combining TV buys with, the top-rated news and information site, according to Nielsen Online.

"Anybody talking about a rating point on a particular night is shortening the playing field," said Greg D'Alba, CNN's exec VP-chief operating officer of ad sales. "One thing we do know is that we have more consumers than ever before. There are more people consuming more media than ever before in the history of our business. That's got to be really encouraging and eye-opening for everybody in our industry, seeing our consumer base grow, and it's being consumed based on brand strength and relevancy."

Indeed, that theory of abundance is even benefiting 4-year-old cable news network Current TV, which saw monthly unique visits to its home page,, soar as high as 7 million on the strength of partnerships with social media sites such as Twitter. Co-founder Joel Hyatt said Current is benefiting less from having a particular point of view as a network and giving more voice to its viewers, who help program everything from what stories get covered on-air to the ads, through viewer-created ad messages.

"There's an incredible energy coming off a very mobilized election and a benefit of people who want to participate, express their views and get involved in issues," Mr. Hyatt said. And since Current is not yet rated by Nielsen, there's even more emphasis to have a rich experience for viewers and advertisers online. "For some people TV remains a one-way medium, and how we make those platforms work together. So much of our TV programming incorporates elements of crowd-sourcing in one way or another, so clearly the online platform for us is critical."

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