Cable networks look to postwar era

— Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have eagerly fed a public hungry for war news, 24 hours a day. What happens when that hunger subsides?

Cable news networks face the same question whenever a big news story runs its course. Their audiences will get smaller -- that's the safest bet in town -- but each has reasons for optimism looking ahead.


AP Photo

Robert Kendrick watches MSNBC broadcasting video of a Saddam Hussein statue falling in Baghad, Iraq, in a television store in Santa Clara, Calif. Cable news networks covered the war 24 hours a day for three weeks and were rewarded with huge audiences. Now they're looking for ways to hold on to those viewers as the war winds down.

"People spend an inordinate amount of time and they get hooked on the story, whether it's O.J. or Florida or whatever," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson. "When they sense that the drama or the suspense is over, then they almost rebel -- 'I'm not going to watch any news for a month, I am so sick of news' -- and the ratings take a nosedive."

In another month, Sorenson said the ratings are expected to be back to prewar levels.

By most measures, each of the three networks were winners during the war. MSNBC's audience increased 357 percent prewar and postwar, while CNN's went up 305 percent and Fox News Channel 239 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"I think they all came through," said Andy Donchin, an analyst for the ad-buying firm Carat USA. "I think the public got the information that they needed."

The war coverage minted new stars: Fox's correspondent, ex-Marine Greg Kelly; MSNBC's ironman anchorman Lester Holt; and CNN's swashbuckling embed, Walter Rodgers.

Fox maintained its status as the top-rated news network throughout the war, something of an upset considering many observers believed CNN's greater resources would enable the older network to vault back into the lead.

Fox's flag-waving coverage struck a chord, considering polls showed a solid majority of Americans supported the war, said Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast department at Northwestern University.

"I think there is a solid core of viewers out in the country ... that wanted to watch a television station that supported the war, that was not critical, that was not interested in asking the tough questions," he said.

While CNN couldn't recapture the lead from Fox, three-fold ratings increases are nothing to sneeze at. CNN usually has more people than Fox tuning in over the course of a week; Fox's averages are higher because their viewers stay longer.

"I'm very pleased that CNN has achieved such a large audience push," said Teya Ryan, general manager of CNN/US. "I think that's impressive."

MSNBC's increase was the most dramatic, in part, because it was so far down to begin with. But the network, making full use of its NBC News resources, has been sharp in breaking news.

MSNBC has used wartime to start a new prime-time lineup, with Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough as hosts. Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's planned show remains on hold, however.

The ratings may also indicate that television viewers are becoming much more comfortable with the cable news networks as a place to turn during big stories. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news broadcasts, cumulatively, haven't seen wartime boost their ratings very much.

In a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 39 percent of Americans say they feel as if they "can't stop watching news about the war."

But there are signs that may be running its course.

The Pew survey found nearly four in 10 Americans saying the news media is focusing too heavily on the war, with many saying other stories like the tax cut debate or the economy aren't getting the attention they deserve.

"I think that people are going to be, in the immediate future if they haven't already, starting to look for alternatives," Angotti said. "I know I am. I feel overexposed to the war and I think most people feel the same way."


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