- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

It has not been a very promising year for cable news channels. Between January and March, viewership has dropped dramatically on the Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC.

Audiences are down by a third at Fox, while CNN and MSNBC both have lost about half of their audiences, according to Nielsen ratings released yesterday.

Though the numbers themselves are dismal, Fox still bested its rivals in the ratings, as it has done consistently for two years. Fox also broadcasts 11 of the top 12 news shows, with “The O’Reilly Factor” leading the pack of 80 programs.

At this time last year, the United States was building up for the war with Iraq, an obvious factor in increased viewership. The presidential primaries couldn’t even attract a captive audience.

“Last year, the news channels featured people screaming, weapons of mass destruction and a dramatic buildup to the Iraq war. This year, the only one screaming was Howard Dean, and he didn’t even make it into February. Naturally, the ratings suffered,” observed Matthew Felling of Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“The audience knows the difference between real news and news spackle, no matter how glitzy the graphics are,” Mr. Felling added.

Fox had 2.2 million viewers in prime time (from 8 to 11 p.m.) at this time a year ago; the figure now stands at 1.4 million, for a drop of 36 percent. CNN had 1.6 million prime-time viewers in 2003 — now down to 806,000, for a drop of 48 percent.

At MSNBC, there were 666,000 prime-time viewers last year; now it has 333,000, or a drop of 50 percent.

In daytime, Fox had 1.3 million viewers last year; the figure now stands at 824,000, for a drop of 36 percent. CNN had 953,000 daytime viewers this year and 458,000 in 2003 — a drop of 52 percent. At MSNBC, there were 461,000 daytime viewers in 2003 compared with 234,000 this year — a drop of 49 percent.

“Spinmeisters will call FNC’s drop the largest, because its viewership lead is so great that the absolute number who stopped watching Fox is larger than for the other two networks,” observed Thomas Lifson, a California-based economist and contributor to “The Thinking Man,” an online journal.

Fox News is now “reaping the benefits, financial and otherwise, of counterprogramming to the obvious bias of CNN,” writes Mr. Lifson, a Harvard graduate who describes himself as a “recovering academic.”

Additionally, Fox has all but monopolized the top positions for news shows in the ratings race.

With 2.2 million viewers, “The O’Reilly Factor” is top of the heap, followed by “Hannity & Colmes” with 1.5 million viewers and the “Fox Report with Shepard Smith” with 1.4 million. CNN’s “Larry King Live” was in fourth place with 1.3 million viewers.

The next eight spots are occupied by Fox News shows, including “Special Report with Brit Hume,” “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” and “Fox and Friends.”

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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