In the bitter battle of the dueling "Monicagate"
impeachment coverage, Fox News Channel kicked off the New Year with a bang, winning the
January ratings race in primetime against archrival MSNBC.
FNC not only scored a better primetime rating in January
than MSNBC, but it actually outdelivered its bigger competitor in terms of households,
according to Nielsen Media Research data. FNC earned a 0.6 primetime rating, or 216,000
households, versus MSNBC's 0.4 rating, or 204,000 households, Nielsen said.
The fact that FNC managed to outdeliver MSNBC in actual
homes -- by 12,000 -- is all the more startling because FNC's distribution is
significantly lower than that of MSNBC. FNC reaches 38.2 million homes, compared with
MSNBC's 47 million.
Overall, FNC's primetime ratings doubled, while MSNBC
was flat. In total-day ratings for January, MSNBC was also flat, at a 0.3, while FNC was
up 50 percent, to a 0.3 from a 0.2. MSNBC did outduel FNC in households in total day,
152,000 to 109,000.
Last week, FNC officials were crowing about their win
against MSNBC, which also came under fire last week from NBC affiliates for airing several
same-day rebroadcasts of Meet the Press.
In order to take advantage of some key impeachment
newsmakers that Tim Russert had on NBC's Meet the Press Jan. 24 and 31, MSNBC
rebroadcast those shows at 7 p.m. on those same days. MSNBC called the move a temporary
FNC also accused MSNBC of resorting to desperate measures
to boost its ratings by hiring the conservative Oliver North as one of the hosts of a new
MSNBC has"30 minutes a day of a well-known
conservative on now," said John Moody, FNC's vice president of news editorial.
"It's a start, but it may be an experiment born of panic."
FNC recently called MSNBC's hiring of North a
last-ditch attempt to add balance to its "left-wing" slant -- a term that FNC
chairman Roger Ailes used to describe MSNBC in a Jan. 28 Associated Press story.
In contrast, MSNBC insisted that FNC's
primetime-ratings victory in January was a fluke, and it maintained that its hiring of
North has been in the works for some time.
"For 18 consecutive months, MSNBC has beaten Fox in
primetime, including December 1998, when we made significant changes to our primetime
lineup. A one-month win for Fox in primetime is not a trend," an MSNBC spokesman
MSNBC also argued that FNC's audience has a
conservative bent, and it is flocking to impeachment coverage, giving it a ratings boost.
Meanwhile, more moderate viewers -- MSNBC's audience -- "have reached
saturation" with the Lewinsky affair, and they are not tuning in.
Moody disputed that contention. "Do they think that
conservatives are the only ones interested in politics?" he asked, adding that he
doesn't know what the political slant of FNC's viewers is. "We can't
make someone who tunes to our channel tell us what party they are."
Moody said FNC has been presenting all sides of the
impeachment story -- both liberal and conservative -- adding that its coverage has been
more energetic than that of its rivals. And he gets viewer mail "from both sides of
the societal aisle," both lauding the coverage, as well as complaining that it's
too hard on President Clinton.
"We've had everyone from [pro-impeachment Rep.]
Bob Barr [R-Ga.] to [pro-Clinton Rep.] Jerry Nadler [D-N.Y.] on. That's a pretty
broad spectrum to be carrying," Moody said.
MSNBC's flat January ratings coincided with the
network reworking its primetime schedule to fill the gap left by Keith Olbermann's
exit in December to join Fox Sports Net.
"Obviously, Keith Olbermann was on the way out, so
there was going to be a bit of instability at MSNBC," said Bill Carroll, director of
programming at Katz Television Group. "They were in a transition time, while Fox News
had its fixtures in place. Sometimes, stability is a plus."
John Hockenberry had been temporarily hosting an hour-long
show at 8 p.m. to fill the gap left by the end of Olbermann's TheBig Show,
an MSNBC spokesman said, adding that the plan was for Hockenberry's new show to
eventually move to 10 p.m.
Then in January, MSNBC reworked its primetime schedule
after lining up John McLaughlin and North as hosts for two shows.
Hockenberry's 10 p.m. show replaced White House in
Crisis.North and Cynthia Alksne joined the lineup at 8 p.m. with a primetime
version of Equal Time. McLaughlin Special Report airs at 8:30 p.m. And 9
p.m. time slot is filled by News with Brian Williams.
MSNBC denied that any of its schedule changes were a result
of "panic" or a reaction to its flat ratings showing in January.
"The development of new programming in the 8
o'clock hour began in late fall, when the decision was made to end the run of The
Big Show," the MSNBC spokesman said. "Hockenberry was selected as a
temporary replacement while negotiations were finalized for Equal Time and
McLaughlin Special Report."
As for the new primetime edition of Equal Time, the
MSNBC spokesman said, "By hiring Cynthia Alksne, an outspoken liberal, and Oliver
North, a renowned conservative, we hope to present a balanced, yet opinionated, discussion
on key issues that would appeal to our politically diverse audience."
In terms of other news networks in January, primetime
ratings were a mixed bag. Cable News Network was down 8 percent, to a 1.1 from a 1.2
(although it was up 17 percent total-day), according to Nielsen. But CNBC -- which did
extensive primetime impeachment coverage with Geraldo Rivera and with Chris Matthews'
Hardball -- inched up in primetime to a 0.7 from a 0.6.
As for the future, Moody said he isn't worrying about
what will happen to FNC's ratings when the impeachment trial ends. "News is
always happening," he said.