Cable News Claims Victory With Election

1/02/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

Cable-news networks were the big winners in 2008, breaking records while covering a landmark presidential election.

Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC handily secured their dominance over broadcast in the news genre, with cable racking up its largest yearly share of news viewing ever. Cable’s piece of the news-watching pie last year was nearly two-thirds, or 61%, versus 39% for broadcast, according to a Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Cable news enjoyed another viewership watershed in 2008: CNN claimed that it had a “transformational” election-night win on Nov. 4, when it beat all its broadcast cable and cable-news rivals to be the most-watched network from 8 p.m. to 12:20 a.m. “For the first time in the history of television, a cable news network outdelivered every single broadcast network on election night,” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner’s chief research officer.

Boosted by their reporting on an extraordinary presidential race most of the year, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC racked up sizable double-digit growth in household ratings, total viewers and the key news demographic, adults 25 to 54.

But Fox News remained the undisputed news champ. Rupert Murdoch’s network celebrated its seventh consecutive year as the cable-news ratings leader in primetime and total day among total viewers and the key 25-to-54 demographic. And 2008 was Fox News’s highest-rated year ever in both total day and primetime. Fox News Channel said its executives were not available for comment.

The dominant all-news network averaged 2.059 million viewers in primetime, a 41% increase from 2007, and almost as large an audience as CNN and MSNBC combined. In terms of household primetime ratings last year, Fox News ranked No. 4 among all cable networks, with a 1.7 rating, up 31% versus 2007, according to Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen data.

In primetime ratings, CNN saw a 57% ratings’ gain in 2008, to a 1.1, ranking tenth; MSNBC jumped 60%, to a 0.8; and Headline News was flat at a 0.4.

In total primetime viewers, CNN delivered 1.29 million, a 69% increase; MSNBC averaged 925,000, an 82% jump; and Headline News delivered 509,000, a 33% gain.

“It’s the best year that CNN has ever had in terms of ratings,” said CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein. “And it’s no accident that it’s also the best year we’ve ever had in terms of journalism. The better journalism we do, the more viewers we get. And we like that very clean and clear formula.”

MSNBC also said it had its best year ever in 2008, with president Phil Griffin claiming that NBC Universal’s underdog cable-news outlet had more to celebrate than CNN.

“Between us and CNN, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “They had a good couple of days as they always will, but they don’t have any story in 2008. We are the story in 2008. We’ve been an also-ran for the better part of our entire life at MSNBC. The story is the Tampa Bay Rays this year, they came out of nowhere to first place to get into the World Series. We came out of being an also-ran and now are beating day to day CNN in primetime, challenging Fox two hours of the day, two of the hours in primetime, often beating them.”

Griffin was referring to Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which beats CNN in the 8 p.m. time slot; and MSNBC’s new hit The Rachel Maddow Show, which has outperformed CNN’s Larry King Live at 9 p.m. in the 25-to-54 demo ever since its September premiere.

Last year Fox News maintained its top spot in that demographic, delivering 497,000 adults 25 to 54 in primetime, a 42% increase from 2007, according to the Disney ABC analysis. But CNN managed to narrow Fox’s lead in that age group by averaging 455,000 viewers, an 86% gain over 2007. MSNBC delivered 369,000 viewers in the demo, an 83% jump, while Headline News averaged 199,000, a 38% increase.

Klein cited last year’s ascent of Anderson Cooper 360 to the No. 1 spot among 25-to-54-year olds in primetime, versus Fox News’s On the Record With Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC’s Countdown replay.

But Fox News’s On the Record is still tops at 10 p.m. in total viewers. Indeed, On the Record was one of five Fox News shows that enjoyed their highest-rated year ever in 2008, according to the network.

Klein said CNN plays its coverage middle-of-the road, versus its competitors MSNBC and Fox News.

“There is a liberal news network, but it’s not CNN,” Klein said, referring to MSNBC. “That’s been very clearly established through their programming choices. We play it straight down the middle. We hold all sides accountable. … We’re not partisan cheerleaders and we’re not partisan flame-throwers.”

In response, Griffin said MSNBC shows have a “point-of-view” and are anchored by hosts who are “clever,” with opinions based on facts.

Said Griffin, “We’re playing to news junkies. They know what’s going on. You’ve got to give more than that straight news.”

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