October Surprise: Fox News Ties CNN


With the latest Nielsen Media Research ratings report in hand, Bill O'Reilly proudly made himself the topic of the nightly "talking points" segment at the beginning of last Monday's edition of
The O'Reilly Factor
, his Fox News Channel show.

"Well, it's happened.
The Factor

has beaten Larry King in the ratings for the month of October, and we are now the highest-rated cable news program in America," O'Reilly boasted to viewers.

It was a big month for O'Reilly, and for Fox News Channel. The 4-year-old upstart tied Cable News Network in the October ratings race, the first time it had ever matched the 20-year-old CNN in a monthly ratings period.

FNC generated the largest year-to-year ratings gains of any basic cable network, jumping 125 percent in primetime and 100 percent in total-day ratings.

FNC and CNN both averaged a 0.9 rating in primetime and a 0.4 total-day rating for the month. But CNN, which is more widely distributed-79.6 million subscribers in October, compared with 54 million for FNC-beat FNC in household distribution. CNN averaged 680,000 households in primetime, while FNC averaged 482,000.

"If they [CNN] had the same amount of homes that we do, we would be beating their brains in," O'Reilly said in an interview last Tuesday. "I would only assume that if the present landscape continues, then we will beat them around the clock."

Despite CNN's subscriber-count advantage, from time to time FNC does draw more households. Last Wednesday, FNC beat CNN by its largest margin ever in primetime, drawing 900,000 households (a 1.6 rating) compared to 711,000 (a 0.9 rating) for CNN.

Both networks crushed MSNBC, which averaged a 0.4 rating and 257,000 households in primetime and a 0.3 total-day rating with 170,000 households in October.


O'Reilly Factor

beat CNN stalwart
Larry King Live
, which is on from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., for the first time ever during October.
The Factor

averaged a 1.2 rating and 677,000 households, compared with a 1.1 and 910,000 households for
Larry King

O'Reilly's show, which airs from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., does not compete head-to-head with King's gabfest. Their programs, however, are considered the flagship talk shows for their respective networks.

Although CNN counts 25 million more households, O'Reilly nearly matched King's show in household delivery in the key 25-to-54 demo, pulling 232,000 households in the demo, compared with 242,000 for King.

"We've been trying to beat this guy for a long time. He's very tough, and he can take it back any time," said O'Reilly, insisting that he's not letting the October performance go to his head. "Don't make it like I'm strutting around here, 'cause I'm not."

Although FNC's mantra is "We report, you decide," O'Reilly and the network are often accused of siding with conservatives.

Last Wednesday, op-ed Web magazine TomPaine.com took out a full-page ad in
The New York Times
, calling FNC "GOP-TV."

"We distort, you decide, would be more like it," read the ad.

O'Reilly-who later challenged TomPaine.com publisher John Moyer as a guest on his show-dismissed the frequent accusation that FNC has a conservative bent last Tuesday, before the ad ran.

"I get just as many letters from the right as I do the left," O'Reilly claimed. "And the fact is, we could never on television make the inroads that we have made against NBC [which owns news net MSNBC] and CNN just from one audience. It has to be across the board."

CNN officials downplayed FNC's performance in October, suggesting that its rival's gains came from political coverage and that FNC may lose momentum after tomorrow's election.

"CNN's increases are based on the news whenever and wherever it occurs, and that is clearly the stronger position to be in," spokeswoman Christa Robinson said.

CNN usually beats FNC during its coverage of breaking news, she said, citing last Tuesday's crash of a Singapore Airlines airplane in Taiwan as an example. CNN averaged a 0.6 rating from 11 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. for its crash coverage, while FNC posted a 0.4 rating during the same time period.

In prime time, FNC jumped from a 0.4 rating to 0.9; CNN grew from a 0.7 to a 0.9; and MSNBC increased from a 0.3 to a 0.4.

FNC posted the biggest gains in the 25-to-54 demographic, jumping 201 percent from last year to 202,000 households. CNN's delivery increased 62 percent for the same demographic to 288,000 households.

MSNBC and FNC both launched in 1996. Four years later, FNC consistently tallies ratings more than double those of MSNBC.

Despite the appearance that the all-news war has become a two-horse race between CNN and FNC, MSNBC officials said they were pleased with last month's ratings performance.

"Let's see what happens when the [presidential] campaign is over," said MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor, suggesting CNN and FNC's ratings gains may come from the fact that those networks run more political programming than MSNBC.

CNBC, MSNBC's sister network, pulled a 0.4 primetime rating and 282,000 households in October, down from a 0.5 rating and 328,000 households last year.

October was a strong month for the Turner cable networks. Cartoon Network and TBS Superstation finished the month tied for first place in primetime, with a 1.9 rating. Cartoon's rating represented a 12-percent jump from October 1999, while the Superstation fell 5 percent.

Nickelodeon was the highest-rated network in total day ratings, averaging a 1.4 rating (down 7 percent). The network tied Lifetime Television for fourth place in primetime, with a 1.6 rating. ESPN placed third in that daypart with a 1.8 rating (down 22 percent).

TNN: The National Network was ranked No. 9 in primetime, with a 1.1 average rating (up 39 percent), thanks largely to the addition of top-rated World Wrestling Federation Entertainment programming.

The loss of WWF shows hurt USA Network, which dropped 29 percent in primetime, to a 1.5 rating, ranking the network sixth overall. In total day ratings, USA fell 22 percent to a 0.7 rating, ranking it eighth.

In June, after USA lost the WWF to TNN, USA Cable president Stephen Chao said the loss would "have a negligible effect on our ratings."

But only one USA program was ranked in the top 100 in October. The 2.8 rating USA drew Oct. 22 with the movie
The Craft

was its best ratings performance in October. The movie finished in an 18-way tie for the No. 70 -rated program of the month, sharing the spot mostly with Nickelodeon cartoons like

A & E Network and Turner Network Television tied for seventh in primetime, with a 1.4 rating. Discovery Network ranked 10th with a 1.0 rating (down 17 percent).