In the days immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the all-news networks downplayed the staggering ratings that each service generated.
There was a sense of camaraderie during the week of the attacks, as the all-news networks even pooled their resources at times in order deliver the best coverage to viewers. But no one wanted to be perceived as profiting from tragedy.
One year later, as news viewing levels retreated closer to pre-Sept. 11 figures, Cable News Network, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNBC are at each other's throats once again.
And some in the business are enjoying the all-news war. "I find it all kind of interesting. The little war between the cable news networks — I think it's a lot of fun to watch," said Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.
Smith is having fun for a good reason: CNN and Fox News ran neck and neck in the weeks before the attacks, but Fox pulled away considerably from its older archrival in the months that followed.
The biggest challenge for all of the news networks has been to retain the viewers that flocked to them in the weeks following the attacks.
Last September, Fox News was the highest-rated news network, with a 1.3 total-day rating. It was followed by CNN (0.9), MSNBC (0.7) and CNBC (0.3).
While Fox News and CNN still posted higher ratings last month than they did in August 2001, ratings for both networks have dipped since last December, when Fox News averaged a 0.9 total-day rating and CNN a 0.8.
Fox News averaged a 0.6 total-day rating in August, up 50 percent from the same month last year. CNN's ratings jumped 25 percent in the same period, to a 0.5.
But MSNBC and CNBC have failed to keep the viewers they attracted after the attacks. CNBC has been one of the hardest it.
Although some expected that the poor economy and multiple financial scandals would draw more viewers to the network, CNBC pulled a 0.3 total-day rating in August, flat with the same month last year. In primetime, the business-news network's average rating dropped 50 percent, to a 0.2.
One of CNBC's biggest challenges has been competing with business-news shows on CNN and Fox News Channel, whose ratings have been driven by strong lead-in ratings from general news programs. CNBC's flagship Business Center
has been beaten handily by CNN's Lou Dobbs Moneyline
and Fox News's Your World With Neil Cavuto.
While CNN's numbers have dropped since last fall, the network's new executive vice president and general manager, Teya Ryan, maintained that overall interest in the news is up significantly.
"We're in a time of news awareness, where people realize what happens globally affects their lives at home in their neighborhood," she said. "And any time you have something where people feel their personal lives are affected, they're going to turn to the news."
CNN has revamped its schedule and talent roster since last September. Former Fox News Channel anchor Paula Zahn and former ABC News reporter Aaron Brown were hired before the attacks. But both Zahn and Brown were thrown into action immediately on Sept. 11, and were given their own programs weeks later.
Brown hosts his quirky Newsnight With Aaron Brown
weeknights at 10 p.m.; Zahn has her own morning show, American Morning With Paula Zahn.
One of the biggest differences in CNN these days is how the anchors — from Brown to Zahn's morning co-host, Jack Cafferty — often give their own opinions on stories they cover. Dobbs has drawn the most attention at CNN for his daily commentaries, many of which have ridiculed the U.S. Justice Department for prosecuting accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
Adding commentary to news shows is an approach Fox News star Bill O'Reilly and other network talent have done successfully, but something journalists avoided in the past.
"It [commentary] is not a mandate," said CNN's Ryan. "I think those that we feel comfortable with doing it are going to do it. But I think that the world has changed in the sense that passions run high on the news right now."
While CNN and Fox News fought a close ratings battle in the months preceding the Sept. 11 attacks, in some dayparts where Fox News dominates, CNN has focused more on emphasizing that it's beating MSNBC.
Case in point: Phil Donahue beat CNN's new star, Connie Chung, the night he debuted in July, but Chung quickly regained her lead during the 8 p.m. hour. After Donahue's fourth week on the air, CNN pointed out that Connie Chung Tonight's 0.7 rating for the week ended Aug. 18 topped Donahue
by 133 percent. But Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor
dwarfed both programs, pulling a 1.7 rating that week.
Of all the news networks, MSNBC has made the biggest changes in the last year, and it now resembles a talk radio station.
In July, it dropped its only traditional newscast, The News With Brian Williams, which now runs exclusively on sister network CNBC. It replaced The News
with Donahue's talk show at 8 p.m., and replaced its daytime news programming with talk shows, including one hosted by former CNN Crossfire
commentators Pat Buchanan and Bill Press, and another that features Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and civil-rights attorney Ron Kuby.
MSNBC also dropped most of its documentary programming from the schedule, which used to include MSNBC Investigates, Headliners and Legends
and National Geographic Explorer.
"We're the poster child for change, post-9/11," acknowledged MSNBC president Erik Sorenson. "A year ago today, we were a breaking-news and documentary channel. Our strategy was to compete with CNN and Fox when there was big breaking news, and compete with Discovery and The Learning Channel and A&E on slow news days."
Now MSNBC needs debate-style programs like Donahue
in order to be topical, Sorenson said. And the network still provides news updates at the top of each hour and interrupts its regular schedule to cover breaking news, he noted.
But so far, the format change hasn't helped MSNBC. Its 0.4 primetime and 0.3 total-day average in August were flat with figures from the same month last year.
PLEA FOR TIME
Noting that it took Fox News a few years to drive big ratings with its schedule, which also contains debate-type programs, Sorenson said critics need to give MSNBC more time to for the new schedule to work.
"They [Fox] have been doing it for six years — we've been doing it for six weeks," Sorenson said. "And our six weeks have been during a summer and a slow news cycle.
"We haven't had an impeachment, a Florida [presidential election recount], a [Princess] Diana, a J.F.K. [John F. Kennedy Jr.'s fatal plane crash] or a 9/11 with our news lineup to kind of get sampling and launch it in a way Fox has."
Both Fox News and MSNBC debuted in 1996.