Tuesday, March 23, 2004

FOX AND CNN: WHO'S WATCHING? According to a new report by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the notion that the Fox News Channel is trouncing CNN in the ratings is one of those received pieces of conventional wisdom that doesn't hold up when you look at the facts.

The report, by FAIR's Steve Rendall, finds that Fox's lead is in the "share" - that is, how many viewers are watching at any given time. By contrast, CNN holds a wide lead in the "cume," which measures how many viewers tune in for at least six minutes a day. Because CNN emphasizes news and Fox's programming consists mainly of opinion-driven talk shows, viewers tend to stick with CNN for a shorter period than Fox watchers - but there are many more of them.

How dramatic is the difference between the two measurements? Rendall writes:

CNN regularly claims a cume about 20 percent higher than Fox's (Deseret Morning News, 1/12/04). For instance, in April 2003, during the height of the fighting in Iraq, CNN's cume was significantly higher than Fox's: 105 million viewers tuned into CNN compared to 86 million for Fox (Cablefax, 4/30/03). But in the same period, the ratings reported by most media outlets had Fox in the lead, with an average of 3.5 million viewers to CNN's 2.2 million.

As it turns out, these "lighter" viewers are more valuable to advertisers than the folks who sit inertly through The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren for hour after hour. That's because showing viewers the same commercials over and over is less cost-effective than hitting channel-surfers once or twice. Thus CNN is able to charge higher advertising rates than Fox even though its audience share is smaller. Then there's this:

Interviewed in MediaWeek last year (2/10/04), media business analyst Larry Blasius suggested that snob appeal was part of the reason that he didn't think Fox would soon catch CNN in the race for ad dollars (MediaWeek, 2/10/04): "There are two kinds of news advertisers. If you're talking cold remedies, you're buying eyeballs. Others are looking for an environment, an image. They're looking to reach decision-makers and influencers who watch news. If you're an image-oriented product - a BMW, Mercedes, Lexus - it's not even a question, you go with CNN. There's no comparison in the quality of the journalism - CNN is light years ahead in objectivity and reporting - and I don't think Fox's 'New York Post on TV' approach appeals to the most desirable consumers."

Why is this important? There have been times over the past few years when CNN executives have sought to emulate Fox - not nearly to the degree as the desperadoes at MSNBC, but certainly there is more talk and less news at CNN than there was, say, 10 years ago. FAIR's report shows that aping Fox is not just bad journalism, it's bad business as well.

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