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FOX SETTING THE NEWS AGENDA

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Once upon a time, TV news executives who got equal numbers of complaints on opposite sides of an issue told themselves they were doing their job right.
But then Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, the former Republican strategist and master marketer who knew an underserved audience when he saw (and represented) one, veered right and connected with an audience that felt turned off by traditional news media, which it deemed too liberal.
The rest is TV history in the form of the Fox News Channel, which was created nearly seven years ago in Mr. Ailes’ combative, conservative, always-single-minded and often entertaining image. The news channel was well positioned when the zeitgeist changed after the 2000 presidential election and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As Fox News Channel nears its seventh anniversary, it has displaced CNN as the first choice for news-on-demand in the cable universe, a sea change that took place 18 months ago.
According to Nielsen Media Research for June 2003, Fox News Channel commanded 51 percent of the prime-time cable news audience-more than CNN (27 percent), MSNBC (9 percent) and CNN Headline News (7 percent) combined.
In a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center more than 22 percent of American adults said they get most of their news from Fox News Channel. Twenty-seven percent of the 1,201 adults polled between June 19 and July 2 said they get most of their news from CNN, which had defined the cable-news niche for most of its tenure and ruled it until Fox News began breathing down CNN’s neck in the ratings.
In the Pew survey MSNBC, which launched in July 1996, three months before Fox News Channel, was named as the source of most news by only 8 percent of those surveyed, said Pew editor Carroll Doherty, who characterized that percentage as too small to be reliably dissected.
Mr. Ailes and his channel have turned the once-sleepy cable news niche into a world of constant commotion and a war of words over everything from slogans and defecting stars to which news organization holds the high moral and journalistic ground to whose audience is the most powerful money magnet.
The most recent skirmish was started two weeks ago by CNN News Group President Jim Walton, who suggested that CNN attracted the Rolex viewer while Fox’s audience was the Timex crowd.
The cable news wars have garnered what seems a disproportionate amount of coverage. The combined average prime-time viewership of Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC-2.177 million people the week of July 7 to 13, according to data from Nielsen Media Research-was less than a third of the 6.947 million who tuned in to “CBS Evening News,” the least-watched network newscast.
Blood Sport
The TV press fixation on the squabbling may be partly explained by the scent of blood sport generated by Fox News Channel, which did not reply to a request for comment for this story, and partly by the effectiveness with which Fox has managed to turn cable news ratings into a sort of daily referendum on the mood of the people.
Among those who have weighed in on these issues is John Ellis, who was a consultant-director of Fox News’ election desk until questions were raised about his contacts with his first cousin George W. Bush on election night 2000 and who had been an NBC producer and elections analyst for more than a decade.
Mr. Ailes is “a very successful marketer” whose message has been “clear as a bell” since Fox News opened its doors, said Mr. Ellis, now a writer for Fast Company, a consultant and a blogger.
On the other hand, MSNBC was conceived as a 50-50 partnership between Microsoft, which had hoped to make its dreams of convergence come true, and NBC News, which had hoped to amortize costs by repackaging and repurposing news content (which still tends to score the biggest ratings on MSNBC’s weekends). The secondary plan to create the next generation of America’s pundits soon was abandoned, due to a lack of viewer interest.
The quick turnabout set the management pattern that most observers blame for MSNBC’s inability to grow an audience between big news stories.
The audience that cares about politics knows that MSNBC’s recent turn to the right “is pandering,” Mr. Ellis said. “They get that it’s not the real deal,” which is an ironic choice of words, since one of the personalities MSNBC installed in prime time at the height of its Iraq War viewership is Joe Scarborough, the Republican former congressman whose on-air demeanor and show clearly are modeled after Bill O’Reilly and “The O’Reilly Factor,” which led Fox News’ march up the Nielsen rankings. “I would argue that MSNBC is on a fool’s errand if they think … they can become Fox-like, because no one believes it and because it’s not who they are. They have to decide what they want to be.”
Joe Angotti, a former NBC News executive who now chairs the broadcast program at the Medill School of Journalism, agrees with Mr. Ellis that both MSNBC and CNN would profit from focusing on their own brands of news instead of trying to copy or react to Fox News.
“Fox has two things going for it. It has a political agenda that many people find attractive, and it has an entertainment value that many people find attractive. And the other networks have neither,” said Mr. Angotti. “You have Fox on a roll, and it will continue on a roll. Fox had a plan and Fox had a strategy. CNN has been all over the place. MSNBC has been all over the place.”
“I think it is clear that MSNBC has changed a lot over the last seven years, but one thing we have never changed is our serious commitment to breaking news,” said Neal Shapiro, who became the overseer of MSNBC after taking over as president of NBC News two years ago. But between feasting on the ratings produced by big stories such as the war in Iraq, cable news networks have had to suffer through ratings famines, a cycle that wreaked havoc on revenues and self-esteem.
Just as CNN was making its peace with Fox being a talk- and politics-driven king of the slow news cycles, came the war in Iraq. During the conflic, Fox was still the most-watched cable news channel despite being outspent (CNN had a $30-million war chest) andfrequently outmanned by its competitors.
Flag-Waving Draws Fire
Critics gave high marks to Fox News’s embedded correspondents but teed off on what they perceived as flag-waving by special war correspondent Oliver North, the retired Marine colonel who parlayed his role as fall guy in the Iran-Contra scandal into a second career as a conservative pundit, and by Fox’s anchors and military analysts.
The Pew survey said 65 percent of the Fox audience thinks some news organizations were becoming too critical of the U.S. (48 percent of the CNN audience and 45 percent of broadcast news networks agreed). The survey also showed that 40 percent of the Fox audience believes coverage of the war on terrorism should be covered from a pro-American standpoint. That sentiment is expressed by 32 percent of CNN viewers.
On the eve of the war-and only six months after resurrecting him to jump-start its prime-time lineup-MSNBC jettisoned Phil Donahue, the quintessential liberal talker (a role now filled by the often-resurrected Keith Olbermann).
An extreme experiment in right-winging it blew up in MSNBC’s face when Michael Savage, whose rants against women, gays, minorities and immigrants had made him a shock-talk radio star, lost his live weekend MSNBC show July 7 after telling a caller whom he described as a “sodomite” to “get AIDS and die.”
Still in development at MSNBC after several months is a show starring Jesse Ventura, the outspoken former pro wrestler, Navy SEAL and Minnesota governor, who told reporters in Minneapolis last week that he alone will speak “from the heartland.”
Mr. Shapiro is taking a longer view, building a plan to cover the 2004 presidential campaigns and election, which is shaping up to be another hard-fought battle. Mr. Shapiro showed he knows how to maximize NBC’s display of journalism synergy during the war.
CNN also will take hard aim at the election and wi
ll use its numerous platforms to reach the public, which “Inside Politics” anchor Judy Woodruff believes is still sharply divided and brooding over the 2002 vote decided by a Supreme Court vote along party lines.
“I believe from the bottom of my heart that there is going to be a demand for this straight-down-the-middle solid journalism,” Ms. Woodruff said.
Mr. Ellis predicts the electioneering, already kicking into high gear as Democratic presidential hopefuls work to break out of the pack, will buoy all the cable news networks, with Fox likely to benefit most, because it owns the opinion franchise and has “the natural affinity” with the segment of Middle America that felt disenfranchised by other news organizations.
“Out there in `red state’ America, Fox is the only one anyone is watching,” said Mr. Ellis, and added, “It just needs to upgrade its news gathering.”
He believes CNN can be the Associated Press of the 24-hour news channels. “I don’t think CNN is hard to fix. They own the news-gathering position,” said Mr. Ellis, adding added that CNN “needs to upgrade their talent significantly” if it is to earn a higher grade for analysis and commentary, which, he said, only occasionally shines.
And MSNBC? “MSNBC is a little in a sticky wicket because there may be only room for two,” Mr. Ellis said.
Mr. Angotti thinks both CNN and MSNBC could benefit, through the election and beyond, from renewing their commitment to news. “I think it would work. I think it would counter Fox,” he said.
MSNBC executives declined comment for this article.