When FOX overtook CNN in the ratings early in this decade, CNN continued to put forth the notion that they were still the network to go to when news really mattered. In the run up to the Iraq war CNN was angling to own the coverage as they had during the first Gulf War, only it turned out that FOX showed that it could indeed mount a credible overseas operation for an extended period. While MSNBC, CNN, and FOX each brought their own unique tools to the table and to get the best coverage one had to be a channel hopper (MSNBC using the live anywhere anytime “Bloom mobile” nick-named after David Bloom who tragically died while on assignment there, CNN with its huge international organization and resources, FOX with its gutsy, aggressive reporters using satellite phones), FOX maintained its dominance in the ratings.
It’s no great surprise anymore that FOX is the number one cable news channel in terms of total viewers. But FOX’s dominance has always been explained away by its critics with a “Yeah, but…”; Yeah, but they’re a right wing network and it’s just Republican viewers…Yeah, but they pander to sensational stories…Yeah, but they spin the news….Yeah, but FOX isn’t real journalism. It’s a mistake to try and dismiss FOX this way. FOX’s dominance is more than just numbers. FOX now dominates the perception that they are the go to network for news. CNN has not only lost the ratings lead, they have also lost the perception lead. Consider the following case in point.
When Pope Bennedict XVI was installed as Pope on April 24th, all three networks carried the ceremony from The Vatican live. I liveblogged that event and was covering all three networks as the ceremony unfolded. The differences were striking.
CNN and MSNBC fielded broadcast teams and analysts from Rome. CNN had commentary and analysis from Christiane Amanpour and a couple of analysts plus a couple of reporters in Vatican Square. MSNBC had what I thought was probably the best coverage with the Archbishop of Philadelphia doing play by play of the ceremony as well as translating what was being said and why. It was anchored by Chris Jansing with a team of analysts and a reporter in Vatican Square. NBC was simulcasting the MSNBC feed (for the first time ever).
But FOX had what I considered to be a sub par morning for them. They were late to the start of the ceremony. They had no analysts. They had no anchors. They had no commentary. As far as I know they hadn’t even advertised the event on FOX News Channel. All they had was a couple of translators who only translated what was being said. All FOX viewers had to tell what was going on was the lower thirds which occasionally would bring up details of the ceremony. Up until this ceremony FOX had people covering all the events that unfolded from the death of Pope John Paul II to the choosing of the new Pope. But for this event FOX put
on a bare bones broadcast.
The ratings numbers were never published for this event. So ICN made a request of FOX News to send us a copy. I expected a FOX win but I expected it to be closer than usual given the differences in broadcasts between CNN/MSNBC and FOX. What I saw was a shock.
FOX beat CNN nearly 2:1 and MSNBC nearly 3:1. They had no advertising, no hosts, and no commentary/analysis…a totally meager offering…and they still clobbered the competition which fielded full crews from Rome and spent much time advertising the event in advance. At a time when FOX was at its weakest from a programming standpoint it was still no contest.
There can be no other conclusion. FOX News is not just the ratings leader but also the channel more people will now turn to first to get a story…any story. They’ll turn to FOX before they’ll turn to anybody else. A majority of viewers now believe that FOX News is where the news is happening. More viewers have come to identify FOX with News than CNN or MSNBC. That’s why they turn to FOX first. FOX News has won the perception war and stolen the title from CNN as the name in news. The ramifications of this are huge.
FOX now truly sits in the catbird seat. Their dominance affords them the luxury of having a bad outing and not getting hurt because the viewers believe that FOX is the place to go to for news. For FOX to be dethroned they would have to have a lot of bad outings versus the competition to make viewers think about looking elsewhere for their news. Don’t bet on that happening any time soon. This allows them to try new and different things and take chances (like sending Greta to Aruba) because viewing patterns have now been firmly established because the perception has shifted. The title is not for FOX to lose but for someone else to steal.
For CNN and MSNBC matters are worse. They not only have to fight the raw numbers of FOX’s lead in the ratings but also the perception that FOX is the place for news. And they have to prove to the viewer that their offerings are better. Even then, as evidenced by what happened April 24th, they’ll have to do it consistently for a long time before they can even make a dent in FOX’s dominance. FOX can afford to have a bad day. Its competition can’t. Perception is very tough to overcome and right now, and most likely for the foreseeable
future, more people perceive FOX as the leader in news than they do CNN or MSNBC.
How else can one explain viewers overwhelmingly tuning in to a channel that, on a rare day, didn’t put up a compelling broadcast compared to what the competition offered? This wasn’t about ideology. This wasn’t a right wing broadcast. This wasn’t about spinning or agendas as there was no commentary. It wasn’t about flashy graphics and pizzazz. It was just a simple feed with a pair of translators. And more people tuned in to see that than they did all of the cable competition combined. That’s what perception buys you. It’s like a line of credit which you can draw on. As long as you keep making payments your credit will remain good. And right now FOX’s credit is apparently A+ with the viewers.
What happened April 24th has just got to kill Jonathan Klein and Rick Kaplan. They gave it their best shot and didn’t even come close to knocking FOX off. Hats off to Roger Ailes and his team. The critics can (and will) quibble over ideology, content, and style, but, from a business standpoint, Ailes has truly done a fantastic job making FOX this dominant.
A note on the numbers: It is not clear from the numbers what part of the ceremony is covered or whether it is an average for the ceremony because the numbers that were provided were not broken down that way. Also the CNN/MSNBC numbers are much closer together than I expected. It was known that some NBC affiliates opted to not run the program and instead ran a crawl telling viewers to tune in to MSNBC. Did MSNBC gain viewers from CNN? Or NBC? Or did CNN just not draw that strong? There’s no way to tell really from this sample.