Pundits, News Nets Spin Over GOP Fest

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Spinning was all the rage last week by politicians and the networks that cover them.

While pundits gave their takes on the Republican Party's national convention in Philadelphia, cable all-news networks offered conflicting views on why their ratings either soared or bombed.

Cable News Network won the ratings war, but it saw its average drop significantly from the 1996 Republican convention. Network executives blamed a dull news week.

MSNBC was trounced by both CNN and Fox News Channel, partly attributing the loss to slow news and to what it called FNC's popularity with Republicans.

And FNC, which saw its ratings came close to CNN's, boasted that it was one step closer to becoming the top all-news network.

With ABC, CBS and NBC cutting back convention coverage significantly, CNN, MSNBC and FNC expected big weeks. And each network did deliver at least double their average primetime ratings.

Through last Wednesday, CNN averaged a 1.3 Nielsen Media Research rating and 984,000 households from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. FNC posted a 1.0 average rating and 506,000 households, followed by MSNBC, which averaged a 0.5 and 314,000 households. Ratings from last Thursday night weren't available by press time.

C-SPAN was the only network to cover the entire 19 hours and 32 minutes of podium time from the convention. The network kept a tally of both cable and broadcast coverage. C-SPAN said it was followed by PBS (7:43), CNN (6:21), FNC (6:01), MSNBC (4:12), ABC (2:53), CBS (2:33) and NBC (2:08).

NBC News heavily promoted plans to have top anchors Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert join Brian Williams and other cable talent on MSNBC for the bulk of their convention coverage. But the network's ratings bombed despite the presence of the big guns.

"People are not used to seeing Tom and Tim on MSNBC," spokesman Mark O'Connor explained, noting that the network "did not come here expecting huge ratings. We are not a political channel such as Fox News and CNN."

While CNN won the ratings war, it fell far short of the 1.9 rating and 1.3 million-household average it posted after the first three days of the 1996 Republican convention.

CNN executive vice president Gail Evans attributed the ratings decline not to the emergence of competition from MSNBC and FNC since the last convention, but to the lack of big news.

"It's a totally different news atmosphere," Evans said. In 1996, for example, Republican nominee Bob Dole went into the convention without having chosen a running mate.

Evans said she was not concerned about the ratings growth at FNC, explaining that CNN always knew "there would be a strong competitor, and they would probably be similar to Fox."

"Fox was talking to their constituency," Evans said, bolstering the argument that FNC is tight with Republicans. The real test for FNC will come later this month, when the news networks converge on Los Angeles to cover the Democratic National Convention, she added.

FNC executive producer Bill Shine disputed any perceived bias toward Republicans. "It's just a false argument that our competitors use to attack us. We're fair and balanced," he insisted.

Unsurprisingly, Shine said, FNC's goal is to become the No. 1 all-news network. "I think we're very close. Obviously, we're not there yet. Who knows what can happen in the very near future, but we're close."

Other cable networks hovered around the convention, from Comedy Central to Lifetime Television.

Comedy shot The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from Philadelphia, calling it Indecision 2000.

Through last Wednesday, ratings for the show dropped 4 percent from 1996 coverage (then under its former Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher program), to a 0.7. But The Daily Show ratings with Indecision 2000 were up 19 percent in households versus shows that ran during the three weeks prior to the convention, spokesman Tony Fox said.

Since its subscriber base has jumped significantly, Comedy's household count for the show increased from 379,000 in 1996 to 597,000 last week.

Lifetime included coverage from Philadelphia in its Lifetime Live morning program. The show posted a 0.4 rating and 1.3 million households last Tuesday, topping the 0.3 rating the program averaged in May.

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