- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

ON MEDIA

The Fox News Channel has kept both mission and message clear, with sterling results. Buoyed by a staunch alliance with viewers, Fox has seen its audience grow by 36 percent in 2002, according to a final tally released by Neilsen on Tuesday.

Fox averaged 1.2 million viewers a night in 2002. CNN attracted 898,000 and MSNBC 382,000. Ratings at Fox's two chief rivals fell 8 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

"Our audience is loyal. We see it reflected in the numbers and the feedback. And they're not phony. They like their news straight, and right at 'em," said William Shine, executive producer for Fox News.

"But they're a bit skeptical. They know when they're getting spun. These are people who come home from work and want to know what the news of the day means, and how it's going to affect their family," Mr. Shine said.

The network responds with consistency, he said.

"We've had little change in our programming in the past year. People see what they like, and they return to it," Mr. Shine said. "Right from the beginning, Roger Ailes told us to give people the news straight. And he was right. You build it, and they will come."

Mr. Ailes founded Fox News in 1996. His ideas, plus visceral links with viewers that bypass vacuous "branding" and focus groups, have paid off.

Fox News has four of the five top-rated prime-time cable news shows. With 2 million viewers, "The O'Reilly Factor" topped CNN's "Larry King Live" (1.3 million), followed by Fox's "Hannity & Colmes," "The Fox Report with Shepard Smith" and "Special Report with Brit Hume."

While CNN's "American Morning with Paula Zahn" had a 32 percent gain with 509,000 viewers last year, the show was still eclipsed by Fox's "Fox and Friends" with 757,000.

Is this the triumph of what some call the "conservative network"?

Over the years, press critics have insisted Fox was the cornerstone of a vast right-wing conspiracy, though Mr. Ailes himself has disputed that label. He inaugurated the phrase "fair and balanced," in fact, when the network was founded.

Yet the Fox ratings and the popularity of talk radio once called "reckless" by former President Bill Clinton have set liberals pining for similar triumphs in the broadcast wars.

"Influential Democrats are scouring the nation for a liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh," the New York Times reported in a front-page article Wednesday, adding, "Their concerns have taken on a new urgency because of the rise to the top of the cable news ratings by the Fox News Channel, considered by many to have a conservative slant."

Republican victories in midterm elections perhaps set a backdrop, the Times said, "for the emergence of an angry liberal who could claim the same outsider status that worked so well for Mr. Limbaugh in the early 1990s."

Yet camera-ready, angry liberals who can hold forth before a national audience an audience already preoccupied by terrorism, war and the economy are in short supply. The old guard is aging; witness MSNBC's Phil Donahue, who came out of retirement in July to host a daily rant before a diminishing audience.

"Who have the liberals got, Al Gore? Nobody, really, right now," said one cable news network source. "Bill Press comes to mind as one of the few angry liberals still fierce about issues. Why CNN let him go is totally beyond me."

Mr. Press was a regular on CNN's "Crossfire" for six years before leaving for MSNBC's "Buchanan & Press," co-hosted with conservative Pat Buchanan. Mr. Press is also heard weekday mornings on Washington radio station WMAL-AM.

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