If conservatives exaggerate liberalism of the corporate media beyond recognition, liberals, too, are hyping the power of the Fox News Channel far more than its actual total viewership warrants. According to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Fox's total viewership is far smaller than CNN's, CNN makes much more money than Fox does, and Fox's best-rated show The O'Reilly Factor gets only one quarter to one fifth of the audience of CBS Evening News, "the least-watched broadcast network evening news show":
Reporting on the ratings rivalry between the Fox News Channel (FNC) and CNN is often misleading--and almost always over-hyped.Liberals who are media junkies are indeed being outfoxed, but not by the Fox News Channel, but by their own self-defeating hype.
"Fox Tops CNN as Choice for Cable News," declared one typical headline (Chicago Tribune, 3/24/03). "Fox News Channel Continues to Crush CNN," reported Knight Ridder (Dallas Morning News, 2/3/04) in a column comparing the rivalry to a party primary: "Fox News Channel is winning the Nielsen caucuses." Last summer (8/17/03), the New York Times Magazine declared, looking back at the period of the Iraq invasion, "Fox was -- and still is -- trouncing CNN in the ratings."
After exposure to countless similar stories published since January 2002, when Fox was reported to have surpassed CNN in the Nielsen ratings, one might naturally conclude that Fox has more viewers than CNN.
But it's not true. On any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox.
So what are the media reports talking about? With few exceptions, stories about the media business report a single number for ratings (often expressed two different ways -- as "points" or "share"). This number is often presented as if it were the result of a popularity contest or a democratic vote. But it is actually the average number of viewers watching a station or a show in a typical minute, based on Nielsen Media Research's monitoring of thousands of households.
The average is arrived at by counting viewers every minute. Heavy viewers -- those who tune in to a station and linger there -- have a greater impact, as they can be counted multiple times as they watch throughout the day.
When an outlet reports that CNN is trailing Fox, they are almost invariably using this average tally, which Fox has been winning for the past two years. For the year 2003, Nielsen's average daily ratings show Fox beating CNN 1.02 million viewers to 665,000.
But there is another important number collected by Nielsen (though only made available to the firm's clients) that tells another story. This is the "cume," the cumulative total number of viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes during a given day. Unlike the average ratings number the media usually report, this number gives the same weight to the light viewer, who tunes in for a brief time, as it does to the heavy viewer.
How can CNN have more total viewers when Fox has such a commanding lead in average viewers? Conventional industry wisdom is that CNN viewers tune in briefly to catch up on news and headlines, while Fox viewers watch longer for the opinion and personality-driven programming. Because the smaller total number of Fox viewers are watching more hours, they show up in the ratings as a higher average number of viewers.
CNN regularly claims a cume about 20 percent higher than Fox's (Deseret Morning News, 1/12/04). For instance, in April 2003, during the height of the fighting in Iraq, CNN's cume was significantly higher than Fox's: 105 million viewers tuned into CNN compared to 86 million for Fox (Cablefax, 4/30/03). But in the same period, the ratings reported by most media outlets had Fox in the lead, with an average of 3.5 million viewers to CNN's 2.2 million.
Even among Fox's core audience of conservatives, CNN has an edge in total viewership. A study by the ad agency Carat USA (Hollywood Reporter, 8/13/03) found that 37 percent of viewers calling themselves "very conservative" watch CNN in the course of a week, while only 32 percent tune to Fox. . . .
. . . [I]n the race between these two for-profit ventures, the bottom line is the bottom line: From their capitalistic perspective, the channel that gets more ad revenue is winning the real ratings war. Earnings for the two channels are a contentious subject -- since neither network reports its revenues separate from its corporate parent, and each claims to earn more income than its rival. But many industry analysts say CNN still makes more money. Stock analyst Michael Gallant told the Chicago Tribune (11/28/03) that while Fox is growing faster, CNN is still earning about $200 million more per year than Fox (Television Week, 10/20/03).
Furthermore, CNN apparently continues to command higher ad rates, or CPM. CPM stands for "cost per thousand" (using the Roman numeral), the price a television outlet charges advertisers per thousand television households reached by a commercial. Though Fox began claiming to have reached CPM parity with CNN last summer, CNN chair Jim Walton insisted that CNN's rate was still 40 percent higher (Television Week, 7/14/03).
In interviews with Extra!, ad buyers for three different firms (all of whom declined to be named) confirmed that CNN continues to command a higher CPM, though their estimates of the gap in prices was less than half that quoted by Walton.
One of the reasons for CNN's lead in CPM, according to the buyers, is the advertiser preference for lighter viewers. Such viewers tend to come from the most desirable demographics -- younger, busier, more free-spending -- and because they're harder to reach with ads, the law of supply and demand drives their cost up.
One media buyer we interviewed analyzed the contrast between Fox and CNN in terms of programming and viewing habits, telling Extra!: "CNN is like news radio where people drop in for the news; Fox is like talk radio, where they stay longer for the opinion shows." . . .
But even in the limited sense of average hourly watchers, Fox is only No. 1 among 24-hour cable news channels. Fox, like CNN, now reaches about 4 of every 5 television households, so comparisons with broadcast news shows are increasingly valid. And among all television news sources, Fox's performance is nothing to brag about.
The O'Reilly Factor is the best-rated show on Fox, with about 2 million viewers a night (Daily Variety, 12/5/03). CBS Evening News, the least-watched broadcast network evening news show, routinely gets four or five times as big an audience, and that's seen as a ratings disaster. Fox's flagship news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, gets a million viewers on a good night -- a few thousand more than the local newscast of New York City's WNBC (Hollywood Reporter, 10/1/03; Nielsen). (emphasis added, Steve Rendall, "The Ratings Mirage: Why Fox Has Higher Ratings -- When CNN Has More Viewers," Extra! April 2004)
Then again, the liberal hype is not so self-defeating after all. If the main problem of the broadcast media were Fox in particular, rather than corporate ownership and control in general, liberal voters wouldn't have to feel embarrassed about voting for John Kerry, "a strong supporter of the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996":
Kerry was a strong supporter of the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which by some accounts was the most lobbied piece of legislation in history. The result of these laws was a massive consolidation of media companies, particularly in the radio industry, where over 4,000 radio stations have been sold since 1996. Clear Channel alone went from 40 stations to approximately 1,200 stations. The legislation also gave away the digital spectrum to the broadcasting companies free of charge (rather than having it auctioned off). The spectrum is valued at about $70 billion. Keep in mind, this is the same John Kerry who likes to brag about how he boldly shafted the poor by supporting welfare reform. Apparently, giving a $70 billion Christmas gift for the telecom industry is a more laudable goal than providing temporary subsistence living for America's poor. (Justin Felux, "John Kerry: Media Darling," Dissident Voice, February 12, 2004)