Ratings Fall at Cable News Nets

Oct 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Cable TV’s all-news outlets suffered double-digit drops in viewership last week compared with a year earlier, when the three-week “Beltway sniper” spree that left 10 dead and three injured was playing out in the Washington area and a horrified nation watched with mounting trepidation.
The surprise is not that CNN and MSNBC saw decreases, but that ratings leader Fox News Channel is also sharply down. In the recent past, Fox has been able to continue growing even when there wasn’t big breaking news every day to attract viewers.
Fox News continues to cruise far ahead of its competition in the ratings race, but during the week of Oct. 13-19, Nielsen Media Research data showed its viewership was down 30 percent for total day and down 37 percent in prime time compared with 2002. CNN was down 53 percent for total day and 48 percent in prime time during the same week, while MSNBC was down 39 percent and 40 percent in total day and prime time, respectively.
Aside from the lack of a big, compelling news story like the D.C. sniper, there are signs that news fatigue or audience fickleness is causing lower ratings. It could be a shift in the political winds, competition for attention during a new television season or an unexpectedly entrancing baseball postseason.
CNN and MSNBC have gotten used to seeing viewership subside quickly when big stories, such as the war in Iraq last winter, cool down. CNN finished the third quarter with year-to-year losses of 15 percent for total day and 16 percent in prime time. MSNBC was down 19 percent and 26 percent in total day and prime time, respectively, year to year.
Fox ended the quarter after the war still able to post year-to-year increases of 17 percent for total day and 12 percent in prime time. That was in spite of “The O’Reilly Factor,” the show that has been Fox News’ growth engine, showing softness and averaging less than 2 million viewers for the third month in a row.
In the first three weeks of October, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. (ET), the prime hours for the three major all-news networks, only two shows’ audiences were up year to year: MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” (6 percent) and MSNBC’s “The Scarborough Report” (21 percent). MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “The Abrams Report” were both down 38 percent.
On CNN, the losses ranged from “Anderson Cooper 360 ”’ (down 42 percent) to “Larry King Live” (down 8 percent). On Fox, the losses during those three weeks ranged from Mr. O’Reilly’s “Factor” (down 24 percent) to “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith” (down 16 percent).
The Nielsen data for the week of Oct. 13-19 showed first-ranked Fox with an average of 646,000 viewers for total day and 1.026 million viewers in prime time. Second-place CNN averaged 405,000 for total day and 695,000 in prime time. Third-place MSNBC averaged 194,000 for total day and 248,000 in prime time.