The new news-watching order was never more apparent than last week, when Fox News Channel — on several nights — beat the Big Three broadcast networks with its coverage of the Republican National Convention in New York.
In fact, Fox News Channel’s landmark triumph last Tuesday through Thursday over ABC, CBS and NBC wasn’t the only surprise at the confab at Madison Square Garden. In yet another eyebrow-raiser, typical last-place news network MSNBC chalked up some strong performances.
Last Tuesday night, MSNBC spiked and outperformed once-upon-a-time No. 1 Cable News Network.
Fox News viewership for the GOP convention last Thursday night, when President Bush accepted his party’s nomination, hit 7.3 million, a record telecast for the network in 2004. Ratings for the Republican gathering were an ode to the appeal of cable news.
Last Tuesday, Fox News first outpaced the Big Three, when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and first lady Laura Bush addressed the convention.
Fox News did even better last Wednesday, beating the broadcasters with coverage of Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech.
Fox News’s performance cements what some cable-research chiefs have been saying all along: That since Sept. 11, 2001, there’s been a sea change, with viewers predominantly turning to 24-hour cable news channels to keep informed.
“This is a huge victory for cable and for cable news, and is another indication that viewers are tuning to cable,” said Bill Shine, Fox News’s vice president of production. “They know that we’re here for more than one hour a day during these big stories. They know that cable news channels are here all day covering this stuff.
“There’s a lot going on in the world right now. … People are turning to cable news for it, and they are not going to the old dinosaurs.”
Some industry observers belittled Fox News’s strong showing during the RNC, saying it’s no surprise that the channel — dubbed “GOP TV” by some wags — would do well with Republican convention coverage because it’s a network with a conservative bent that would naturally attract audiences interested in that event.
Some pundits used similar logic to explain why CNN led the all-news channels with its ratings for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, outpacing the usually dominant Fox News. A network some perceive as liberal, like CNN, would naturally appeal to those interested in the Democratic Party, the argument went.
Officials at Fox News pooh-poohed the idea that the network posted big numbers for the GOP convention merely because it was, in effect, “preaching to the converted.” They maintained that the size of the audience proves Fox News is drawing broad viewership.
In fact, Fox News’s several wins over the Big Three last week just put an exclamation point on what at least one cable-research chief has been saying is an ongoing trend.
“People are spending more of their news viewing on cable networks,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. “American viewers since 9/11 have changed how they consume television news.”
There’s particularly applicable in terms or election coverage.
“Two-thirds of viewing to the Democratic National Convention was on cable,” Wakshlag said. “Four years ago, two-thirds of the viewing was on broadcast.”
Basic cable in general has been trouncing broadcast, and this summer was no exception, even though broadcast benefited from the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Cable news channels are riding with that tide, too.
Last Tuesday night Fox News posted a 3.5 rating, and drew 5.2 million viewers from 10 to 11 p.m. last with its convention coverage, according to Nielsen Media Research. That compared with NBC’s 5.1 million viewers, ABC’s 4.3 million and CBS’s 4.4 million.
The big surprise heaped on top of that was MSNBC’s showing that Tuesday night from 10 to 11 p.m. MSNBC boasted a larger audience — 1.6 million viewers — than CNN’s 1.5 million.
For all of primetime Tuesday, MSNBC also did better than CNN, with 1.3 million viewers versus its 1.2 million.
Compared with last Tuesday, Fox News posted an even better showing on Wednesday, from 10 to 11 p.m., when it attracted 5.9 million viewers, more than CBS and ABC combined. NBC had 4.5 million, ABC had 3.3 million and CBS had 2.6 million.
Officials at MSNBC couldn’t be reached for comment. When CNN was asked about MSNBC’s win against it, a spokeswoman issued a statement: “We are pleased that we experienced double and triple-digit growth for the first two nights of the RNC, and all four nights of the DNC.”
The whole situation had Fox’s Shine musing about what executives over at CNN were thinking about what happened last week.
“They spent a lot of money, and so far it’s not coming back,” he said. “If you look at it purely as an investment, I don’t know what the bean counters are doing today, but they probably don’t have a lot of hair left on their heads.”