"They used to be like the best AM radio news stations, in that you could turn them on at any time and get a fill of the headlines and hard news," Kaplan said of Headline News. "But now it's the same talking heads and ideologues and bullies as all the rest."
Kaplan was no kinder to CNN, where he appreciates only the midday feed from CNN International in London. "It's an hour of competently done international news done by professionals," he said.
Kaplan may have been on the mark with his criticism of the gravitas-free CNN anchor Tony Harris, who sometimes snickers his way through interviews. Kaplan said the network's morning shows "suffer from the same happy-talk disease that the broadcast networks have discovered is the key to ratings."
On the other hand, CNN's curmudgeonly Jack Cafferty is appealing because, Kaplan said, "he's become the truth teller, the guy who says, `How dumb do they think we are?'
"It used to be more of a crank act," Kaplan said, referring to Cafferty. "But you get the sense now that there's more depth, a greater stake in the outcome. He's not just cynical. He's rooting for change."
On election night, CNN won the ratings race, concurrent with the Democratic gains in Congress.
"Fox did not do well in the elections," said Diedtra Henderson, a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Boston Globe and an avid election-watcher. "CNN's numbers were huge. CNN even took out full-page ads in The New York Times saying they were No. 1. Fox couldn't deal with the reality of the news, and CNN benefited because it was seen as bipartisan. CNN called races faster, while Fox anchors were arguing with guests."
Jonathan Klein, president of CNN's U.S. operations, said it was "clear that Fox has lost the pulse of the country."
Klein, who ditched the amiable anchor Aaron Brown a year ago in favor of the hustle-and-bustle Anderson Cooper, said Fox finds itself a victim of its almost unwavering support for the Bush administration, no matter what the reality in Iraq or elsewhere.
"The war is going badly and it's made people turn away from flag-waving, sloganeering and spin and it's made the audience seek out answers," Klein said. "They want insight. The audience is increasingly on to the fact that Fox is giving people the administration party line."
Klein cited as an example FNC's use of the slogan "New Way Forward" to identify Bush administration policy in Iraq. The slogan, Klein said, happens to be the administration's own title for its policy.
Klein said there other kinks in Fox's armor. A year ago, he said, Greta Van Susteren's On the Record had a 52 share in the ratings, against Aaron Brown's anemic 17-share on CNN. Now, Van Susteren is down to a still-appreciable 39 share while Brown's replacement, Anderson Cooper, is at 31, and catching up.
At MSNBC, Dan Abrams, who was appointed general manager six months ago, said he was thrilled that the network has found its focus and has become "regularly competitive" with CNN. "There's no question that in a competitive landscape we are the story of cable news right now," said Abrams, a former legal correspondent for NBC News. "We have shot up to a place where we are competitive. There's no question that Keith Olbermann is on fire; he's beating Paula Zahn on CNN in the key demo almost every night. From Imus to dayside programming to Chris Matthews to Keith Olbermann to Joe Scarborough - everything is on fire now. CNN has a lot to be worried about. CNN is in real danger of becoming the news dinosaur."
Not necessarily. Although growing, MSNBC's numbers remain mostly in the shadows of the larger channels.
Wolf Blitzer, whose daily Situation Room has come to define CNN's new, high-tech approach to breaking news, would not be drawn into comparisons with Fox, MSNBC or anyone else. "I welcome the competition," he said. "It makes us all better. If I play tennis with someone whose game is better than mine, I play better. Bring it on - the more the merrier.
"My attitude is, if I give our viewers serious, important hard news, they will come. We've got a news environment now that's dominated by two subjects - Iraq and politics, and they're related. And they're two subjects I know well. They play to my strengths, and I think that's why viewers are watching us."
The viewers of CNN, Blitzer said, are "news junkies" who "want some value" and "don't want junk."
Beck, a longtime radio host who was brought into the Headline News fold only in May, has seen his ratings increase since then by 84 percent among the most-coveted viewers.
"Crazy, isn't it?" asked Beck. "It just goes to show you how low our standards are. Who thought cable news would be fun?"
Then, turning serious, Beck said audiences "are hungry for news in a different way."