For longtime cable news leader CNN, the heavens would appear to align perfectly when all is falling apart on the earth below. The mandate for serious news coverage is clear, the budget expansive. And the ratings - well, they soar.
But as specific cataclysms like the terror attacks of Sept. 11 subside, so, too, does the domestic audience for CNN, along with its advantage over rivals. The Fox News Channel has recently won some ratings battles with an often-patriotic tone that can challenge conventional media sensibilities.
For CNN, the standard in cable news since its founding two decades ago, that dynamic has played out as it has struggled to redefine itself. Despite CNN's claims of a reborn mission since Sept. 11, some observers and news professionals question how it can sustain its appeal in the absence of breaking news. It is often the brasher, 5-year-old Fox News that serves as the new arbiter of cable news, they say.
"CNN, in many ways, was saved by having real bad news to report," says Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS. Yet, Fox programs "have been overcoming CNN whenever there's not been an emergency," he adds. "Clearly, CNN has been trying to counteract that by moving in their direction with softer news and talk."
Recent years have been dominated by spectacle as news, from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, through impeachment, to last year's election standoff. The summer's top stories recounted a missing federal intern's murky relationship with a congressman and shark attacks off the Atlantic coast.
Fox has been able to achieve ratings successes from sustained coverage of such stories, particularly those with political overtones, television professionals say. "They have created more of a personality and a point of view that will keep its core audience, even in the absence of breaking news," said David Poltrack, executive vice president for research and planning at CBS News.
The O'Reilly Factor, which reflects the combative conservative instincts of its host, Bill O'Reilly, often upends CNN's longtime talk-show ratings champ Larry King Live. In the Baltimore region, programs from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fox News routinely draw higher audiences than those on CNN, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.
CNN has moved to counteract Fox's rise. Over the summer, executives at AOL/Time Warner, CNN's parent company, introduced new graphics and sought to promote its journalists more as stars. Aaron Brown of ABC News and Paula Zahn of Fox were hired as anchors. Major layoffs occurred last summer, and more, particularly at expensive bureaus abroad, were expected, according to staffers there.
Then, Sept. 11 hit.
This autumn, terror, disaster and war have drawn Americans to CNN at elevated levels, with prime-time audiences, at times, double and triple the norm. Foreign and serious reportage has come into vogue, playing to CNN's established strengths. Executives announced that the channel had reclaimed its mission of serious news.
Ratings leapt during CNN's prime-time programming to average more than 4.25 million viewers per minute during the week of the attacks, up from about 843,000, Nielsen estimates show. Fox News Channel registered about 2.66 million viewers, about four times the week before, while MSNBC rose to 1.87 million viewers from 367,000.
"All three have significantly increased their audiences," said Terence Smith, media correspondent for The NewsHour on PBS. "It has been a great boon."
In the weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks, though, the gap between CNN and Fox diminished. There was a brief spike for CNN during early October, when anthrax infections were reported in Florida and again last month after a jetliner crashed in Queens, N.Y.
But Fox led in ratings in prime time for the month of November, despite being received in 10 million fewer homes.
CNN continues to reinvent itself, completing a new lineup that features veteran journalists such as Jeff Greenfield, Judy Woodruff and Wolf Blitzer. Yesterday, CNN laid off roughly 30 experienced hands, including on-air personalities Joie Chen and Roger Cossack.
"These are not budgetary layoffs," CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson said. "These are a result of programming changes. We have primarily showcased our top-tier talent since [the attacks], and that's what we're going to continue to do."
People at CNN say they're confident that their network remains the standard for cable news.
"Overall, CNN is winning the ratings game and without any question is winning journalistically," says Lou Dobbs, who returned this summer as anchor and managing editor of Moneyline. "Our reporting on a global basis is simply outstanding."
Indeed, CNN has more people abroad than any other American television news team - 300 total, with 62 in central Asia alone. But CNN's chief competitor is picking its spots. Fox plucked experienced CNN reporter Steve Harrigan to shore up its foreign coverage, and last month hired Geraldo Rivera to head to Central Asia.