When prime-time cable news ratings for the second quarter of 2008 are officially released next week, they will show that Fox News reclaimed the top spot among viewers in their mid-20s through mid-50s, those of greatest interest to news advertisers, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.
During the first three months of the year, by contrast, CNN drew so many viewers on big Democratic primary nights and for several presidential debates that it vaulted over Fox News for the first time in six years.
But the back-and-forth these last few months masks a more ominous trend for Fox News, particularly as its gears up to cover the general election campaign. The most dominant cable news channel for nearly a decade and a political force in its own right, Fox has seen its once formidable advantage over CNN erode in this presidential election year, as both CNN and MSNBC have added viewers at far more dramatic rates.
In the first five-and-a-half months of 2004, the last presidential election year, Fox’s prime-time audience among viewers aged 25 to 54 was more than double that of CNN’s — 530,000 to 248,000, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research. This year, through mid-June, CNN erased the gap and drew nearly as many viewers in that demographic category as Fox — about 420,000 for CNN to 440,000 for Fox.
Meanwhile, CNN has added 170,000 viewers a night, on average, when compared with the last presidential year, while Fox has shed about 90,000, according to Nielsen. (MSNBC, which added 181,000 viewers in that audience, much of it courtesy of gains by “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” still lagged in third place, with 303,000.)
“I don’t think it’s that Fox has slipped,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “I just think MSNBC and CNN have risen to the occasion in a far more creative way, with better guests, cooler maps and more interactive shows.”
“I like Olbermann,” added Mr. Reed, who is both a friend of Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and a donor to his campaign. “He may be a bleeding liberal, and I don’t agree with his harshness toward Republicans, but I find his show entertaining and informative.”
While Fox News remains the most-watched cable news channel over all — it has been attracting an average of nearly 2 million viewers each weeknight this year, compared to 1.3 million for CNN and 805,000 for MSNBC — its momentum has effectively stalled, at least when measured over years past. The overall prime-time audiences watching CNN and MSNBC, by contrast, have each grown by more than 50 percent this year, when measured against the same period last year, while Fox’s has increased by 10 percent, according to Nielsen. (The New York Times and NBC News, the parent of MSNBC, share some resources in covering political news.)
A Fox News spokeswoman, Dana Klinghoffer, refused several requests this week for comment about the channel’s ratings and strategy. To be sure, the protracted nature of the race for the Democratic nomination, which extended months past that of the Republican race, tended to work to the disadvantage of Fox, which tilts overtly to the right on prime-time programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity & Colmes.” While Fox had no Democratic debates, CNN drew 8.3 million viewers for its Democratic candidates’ debate on Jan. 31, more than six times its usual prime-time audience.
Similarly, on big Democratic primary nights — which tended to be clustered in the first three months of the year — CNN routinely outdrew Fox News, with MSNBC sometimes coming in second. Over the last three months, as Senator Barack Obama secured his hold on the Democratic nomination, viewership on all three cable news channels fell, with CNN losing the most viewers (about 35 percent) when compared with the first three months of this year, according to Nielsen estimates.
“I would think Democratic viewers would be more inclined to go to CNN,” said Carl Forti, executive vice president for issue advocacy for Freedom’s Watch, a conservative organization. “At the same time, there’s been no Republican primary since Feb. 5, and there hasn’t been a lot going on on the Republican side to drive Republicans to political coverage.”
But disproportionate interest in the Democratic campaign alone cannot explain the struggles of Fox relative to years past, and the gains of its competitors. CNN and MSNBC have somehow managed to photocopy several pages from the playbook of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and its chairman, whose emphasis on sharp opinions, glitzy graphics and big personalities has been taken to heart by competitors like CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Mr. Olbermann and his running mate on MSNBC, Chris Matthews.
“What Ailes would say is, they’re following our lead,” said Bob Kerrey, the president of the New School in Manhattan and a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. “There is a certain element of truth to that.”
But, Mr. Kerrey argued, by making themselves more compelling and entertaining to watch, CNN and MSNBC put themselves in a far better position than Fox News to capture those young voters who were paying attention to a presidential campaign, particularly the race for the Democratic nomination, for the first time.
Meanwhile, Fox’s hosts have seemed to struggle on camera to find a new voice. Three times in less than three weeks in late spring, Fox acknowledged making inappropriate references to Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee. It said on June 12 that it should not have referred in an on-screen headline to Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, as his “baby mama.” Previously, a Fox anchor, E. D. Hill, apologized for likening a seemingly affectionate fist bump by the Obamas at a rally to “a terrorist fist jab,” and a Fox analyst, Liz Trotta, expressed contrition for making a joke about a possible assassination of Mr. Obama.
Those comments notwithstanding, a pillar of Fox’s strategy, at least in the weeks since Mr. Obama vanquished Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been to bash him relentlessly.
On Monday night, for example, the viewer did not even have to listen to an interview that Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes conducted on their prime-time program with Dick Morris, a Fox contributor who has written a new book, “Fleeced,” at least partly about the Obama campaign. During the interview the screen flashed continuously with dire warnings set off in quotation marks — “Obama would take this country to the far left”; “Obama would open the door to illegal immigrants”; “Obama would lower penalties for dangerous drug criminals”; “Obama’s tax plan ‘might trigger a stock market crash’ “ — apparently distilled from Mr. Morris’s book.
Mr. McCain, a Republican whose candidacy has not sat well with some conservatives, has not so much gotten a boost from Fox’s prime-time programs as an occasional pass.
More than bragging rights among the cable-news channels are at stake. Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, an ad buyer, said he recently crunched the prime-time Nielsen data for the first half of the year on his own and came away with reservations about Fox’s performance.
“I think that there is some concern there,” Mr. Adgate said. “While they’re still the top-rated network, the gap has closed.”
He added, “What strategy are they going to embark on to rebuild the momentum they had in 2004?”
Still, no one is ready to count out Mr. Ailes, or Fox News.
“The proof is going to be once the political season is over,” Mr. Adgate said. “Can CNN sustain the momentum they have?”
Or, to put it in political terms, he added, “Is this going to have coattails?”