GOP convention viewers tuned in to Fox News

Networks' coverage failed to satisfy

Media

September 08, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The signs literally seemed to foreshadow Fox News Channel's ratings success at the Republican National Convention last week.

One of them, a 30-foot-high banner across from Madison Square Garden, boasted that the top-rated cable news station was "powerful" -- a claim that is at once bold and incomprehensible. I don't even know what that means for a news organization.

If you find power in numbers, however, maybe the boast wasn't misplaced.

Throughout the week, Fox News consistently attracted more viewers to its convention coverage than either of its main cable competitors -- or any of the broadcast networks. That's an unprecedented development. Consider that typical nightly network newscasts average between 6 million and 9 million viewers, while Fox's O'Reilly Factor, the top-rated program on cable news, draws approximately 2.5 million each night.

On the first night of the Republican convention, Fox News nearly matched the combined audience of CNN, MSNBC and PBS. (The broadcast networks weren't showing any convention programming that night.) And the cable channel also won the rest of the week. Fox even had the greatest audiences during the 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. slot, during which ABC, CBS and NBC aired live convention coverage.

What happened? Two explanations have gained currency.

Television viewers -- especially conservatives -- increasingly are seeking newscasts that reflect their beliefs.

Earlier this summer, the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan Washington-based polling institute, found that cable news consumers were more likely to be Republican and tended to be more conservative than the population at large. These figures have changed over time, according to the same study. Six years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans among regular Fox News viewers by 36 percent to 24 percent. Now, it's 41 percent Republicans to 29 percent Democrats. (The proportion of viewers designated as political independents declined by a third.)

"By contrast, the regular audience for CNN is somewhat more Democratic than the general public and almost identical in terms of ideology," the Pew authors wrote.

In fact, CNN took the top ratings -- among cable news channels -- for the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July. But it trailed the big broadcast networks.

Dan Kennedy, a liberal media critic for the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix, spent last week watching the convention almost exclusively on Fox News. "Fox obviously covers Republicans as though they were the home team," he writes in an e-mail interview. "I don't think that's true of CNN and the Democrats, but it doesn't matter what I think. Many conservative-leaning viewers believe CNN is biased toward liberals, and they're acting on that belief."

Fox News executives, who were not available to comment for this column, consistently have rejected the idea that theirs is a conservative news outlet. But in past interviews, they have said repeatedly that the rest of the media is so liberal that it makes them look conservative only by comparison.

The broadcast networks have all but abandoned prime-time political coverage, so viewers look elsewhere.

The big three networks each assigned just three hours of live coverage to the four nights of the Republican convention. "Television, as an industry, has decided that politics are for people who are interested in politics -- that politics are not for [all] citizens," says Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the industry as publisher of the Tyndall Report.

So Fox News advertises politics as the backbone of its coverage. CNN and MSNBC did too, and both saw ratings growth over typical audience levels.

Chris Wallace, the former ABC and NBC news correspondent who is now host of Fox News Sunday, declared Fox's ratings win to be "the big media story of this convention."

Brit Hume, Fox News' chief anchor and Washington managing editor, attributed his channel's ratings surge primarily to the absence of the older television networks. "The broadcast networks have gradually ceded away the territory of coverage of live news events to the cable channels," he said Sunday on Wallace's show. "And more and more people just simply don't look to the broadcast networks the way they used to."

David Westin, president of ABC News, argues that the viewers have spoken: they are no longer watching political conventions in the big numbers of past decades. So the big broadcasters aren't carrying much of the conventions, he says and viewers who want more can turn to cable. Or, in ABC's case, they can follow an alternative network called ABC News Now, found on digital television, high-speed Internet services and specialized telephones.

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