Who's Shouting Now!

The opinionated Fox News Channel is giving ground to increasingly noisy competitors

December 24, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Staff

Ever since Fox News Channel, founded in 1996, proved that news delivered with attitude, opinion and even belligerence could wipe the clock of just about any competitor, CNN - once the undisputed leader of the cable news pack - and a handful of smaller channels have been struggling to find a formula that brings in the same kind of numbers.

Now, CNN and the others appear to have found an answer. Virtually all the competitors are slashing at the Fox ratings lead by offering their own versions of noisy and opinionated news. CNN has been closing on Fox and the others, including MSNBC and CNBC, have on occasion closed on CNN. They're all doing it by delivering the news with a strong personal flair.

The most salient examples of the trend are Headline News's Glenn Beck, who is showing the fastest-rising ratings of anyone on cable news; Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's pugnacious but cerebral resident lefty; his colleague Chris Matthews, long an opponent of the Iraq war who was recently off the air because of illness but who remains very much in the mix; Nancy Grace, whose acerbic, finger-wagging style on Headline News is aimed primarily at miscreants and their lawyers; and, on CNBC, the manic money maven Jim Cramer, whose flailing arms and booming delivery is sheer entertainment for stock-market players who don't mind being shouted at.

The shift toward all-opinion, all-the-time is also working on CNN for Lou Dobbs, who never tires of pushing protectionist views that have won him fans as well as critics. The somewhat stodgy Dobbs unabashedly labels his show "news, debate and opinion."

The shakeout among the main cable news networks is all the more notable for the audience losses at Fox News Channel, which has suffered a 21 percent decline in total viewers when compared to the fourth quarter of 2005. Its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, virtually invincible for much of the Bush administration's tenure, has also lost a significant number of viewers in the past year as the administration's fortunes have waned, its Iraq policy in shambles and its midterm electoral defeats conclusive.

Overall, though, O'Reilly remains the king of cable, ahead of CNN's Larry King and the target of almost relentless invective from MSNBC's Olbermann, who cheerfully describes O'Reilly as "the worst person in the world."

O'Reilly, quick to take offense from any challenge to his bedrock conservative views, is equally dismissive of Olbermann. Watching the two go after each other is a spectator sport.

A spokeswoman for Fox, Irena Briganti, refused to make available for comment any of the network's executives or on-air personalities, writing in an e-mail message that there was "no reason" for Fox to contribute to a story that would include CNN and MSNBC.

She wrote also that both networks remain "in a death struggle for second place" behind Fox.

"Fox is still No. 1 thanks to O'Reilly," said Brian Stelter, who covers the industry on his TVNewser.com blog. "Without him, it would still be very competitive between CNN and Fox. Maybe the upstarts are starting to act a little more like Fox did, when Fox was David to CNN's Goliath. But now that Fox is Goliath, MSNBC and Headline News are starting to throw stones - or pebbles, at least."

Stelter was particularly impressed with the rise of Dobbs on CNN, "to the point where he occasionally beats Brit Hume on Fox." On Dec. 11, Stelter said, Dobbs even came in ahead of his CNN colleague Larry King, who normally trounces everyone on cable news except O'Reilly.

"I'd be worried if I were Fox," said Stelter about the surge by Dobbs, Olbermann, Beck and others whose numbers have been showing signs of momentum.

For the past decade, since Fox News Channel began broadcasting, there was always a ratings formula that seemed to describe the war between CNN, FNC and their distant challengers.

"It was 1 Fox equals 2 CNN, and 1 CNN equals 2 MSNBC," Stelter said. "Now it's not so simple any more. About half the time, MSNBC is beating CNN in the demo."

By "the demo," Stelter means the 25-to-54 age demographic that advertisers covet, and whose viewing habits are therefore the most studied.

Those are some of the same people who tend to watch Comedy Central's fake-news king, Jon Stewart - along with his late-night cohort, Stephen Colbert - and consider them the oracles of what's wrong and hypocritical in both media and government.

Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said MSNBC's recent rise in audience numbers, largely because of Olbermann, is propelled by what he called "the Jon Stewart audience."

Olbermann's show, Countdown, is "informative, edgy and funny, and it respects its audience," said Kaplan, who found it remarkable that "Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert set a standard now."

Kaplan is distressed at the changes at Headline News, which, in the evenings, has become the op-ed page to CNN's hard-news shows.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.