CNN's Ratings Slide While Fox News Gains

In the battle for cable news ratings, Fox News Channel can claim a decisive victory. It's the only network that saw its ratings grow during the first three months of 2010. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik talks about what the ratings free fall means for CNN, and what Fox is doing right.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The latest numbers are in and it's all good news for Fox. The Fox cable news channel far and away leads its main competitors, CNN and MSNBC, in viewers, especially among 25 to 54-year-olds, the demographic advertisers so eagerly seek. Even the audiences CNN's and most popular shows like "Larry King Live" and "Anderson Cooper 360" have taken a big hit. Recent breaking news stories like the earthquake in Haiti and the health care debate, which typically drive people to CNN, hasn't helped their ratings.

So what's going on? And what if anything does this mean for the future of cable news? We want to hear from you. The number is 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our bureau in New York. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Rebecca Roberts, how are you?

ROBERTS: I'm good. So what is going on here? Let's start with the rise of Fox before we discuss the decline of CNN.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, Fox took advantage of the ascension of now-President Obama to decide to position itself in some ways as the voice of opposition. Bill Shine, one of the senior vice presidents there, sort of explicitly talked about that last spring with me, as he talked in particular about what they call their programming as opposed to their news programs.

They still say there's a divide between the strong personalities who burst through the screen, the Glenn Becks, the Bill O'Reillys, the Sean Hannitys of the world, and those of their news shows that are more straight ahead, more likely to feature their reporting, people like Major Garrett and Carl Cameron and others. Some have said that more than almost anyone Fox News blurs or even tends to try to erase those lines. But nonetheless, Fox has succeeded in saying we're going to raise the storylines that others won't.

And so for those who are aggrieved, for those who either have grievances against the media's handling of political coverage or of the, you know, now-ascendant Democrats' handling of political issues, they turn to Fox in increasing numbers. One thing I think is worth pointing out is that, you know, the cable game is about creating the largest possible niche audience.

So on a good night, you know, on a very good night, Bill O'Reilly is likely to have fewer viewers in primetime than a major NPR show, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, MORNING EDITION, does in drive time. So it's, you know, it's worth pointing out that these numbers, while large, aren't quite as big as, say, Brian Williams and, you know, Diane Sawyer get on an average weeknight.

ROBERTS: But that's the key, right? You don't have to worry about alienating a large audience if you're not aiming for a large audience.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. You're aiming for a huge mega-niche, as it were, and Fox does that great. It is a brilliant blend of nursed grievances, puckish programming, often slightly less than sober approach to presentation, in a combination that's very entertaining as well as provocative.

ROBERTS: Now, at the other end of the rating scale, we see CNN, who has always said they will not enter into the opinion journalism world. But their shows are really tanking.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, we can parse the numbers in a moment, but I think in some ways one of the key things to think about is that CNN, while trying to maintain its position as a trusted source of objective news and taking steps to insure that by dropping, for example, most prominently, Lou Dobbs last year, who is one of their real last clearly opinionated voices on the air - it's conducting experiment in the open.

CNN is saying, is there a place for a significant enough sized audience for a non-partisan presentation of the news on cable? And that used to be considered not in doubt or in question. It has become a grand experiment. When you think about what CNN has done in the last generation, in the last three decades, you know, it's gone from news upstart to news stalwart to, you know, the reflexive place to turn for news, sort of a precursor to the Internet in the 24/7 era, to something of at times an afterthought that nonetheless people turn to during major crises and major points of news, whether they're, you know, the election recounts or war breaks out or there's a financial crisis people turn on and you see rating spikes.

One of the troubling things for CNN, with some exceptions, is that if you look over this past quarter, you know, there have been major stories. There was the terrible deadly earthquake in Haiti, there was the health care debate that finally played out in recent weeks. These are opportunities for news organizations to attract more viewers, to attract more traffic online. And CNN has not succeeded in doing that, except here and there they've won certain days and certain times.

If you look at Larry King's audience, for example, it dropped by nearly half compared to a year ago. That's not sustainable. Nonetheless, if you talk to people who are senior executives at CNN, they've lost ratings over time. You know, this is not a new phenomenon for them entirely. And they'd say, look, 2009 - one of our best years ever. You know, CNN has registered near-record profits. CNN/U.S. is by far away the largest part of it. CNN.com blows away, you know, for example, FOXNews.com as a news portal. And they say we're doing great.

Part of it is if you look at their programming, you know, what they're doing with a, you know, I think an arguably blander lineup, particularly in primetime, - people like Campbell Brown and John King and others who are respected in the game, Anderson Cooper, but whose ratings aren't as strong as their Fox rivals - you know, you're seeing advertising that's probably fairly desirable.

If you look at Fox News, for somebody like Beck, who's incendiary but built a huge and very loyal audience, you know, a lot of the advertisers are people you might not want. So you might have, for example, not a Lexus ad but you might have an ad for people who are gold traders. You might have an ad for people who are - and this is literally one of their advertisers - people who will sell you seeds so that you can plant your own crops in the event of - an apocalyptic event happening, you will have foodstuffs for your family. These are unlikely to pay top dollar for commercials.

So you know, what CNN loses in ratings - do they lose dollar for dollar compared to Fox News and each of their programs? Not. But you know, Fox News says, look, we've got a much larger audience, you know, for most of the times of day anybody cares about, and certainly their profits have skyrocketed at a time that it's been more of a challenge for CNN executives.

ROBERTS: So is the back story here that people are just using cable differently, that it's not necessarily a news source as much as it is an analysis and opinion source?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's put it this way. Fox News officials, for example, particularly their PR people, will say we're just in a bit different business. You know, it's offensive for you to talk about CNN, even MSNBC, in the same game as us because we blow them out of the water so much in terms of ratings. And CNN is starting to say, yeah, we're in a different business. They're in show business, they're in programming, they're in ideology, they're in fanning the flames. And increasingly MSNBC on the left does - takes a similar tack, if not necessarily always to the same degree.

We here at CNN, you'll hear executives say, are in the news business, in the journalism business. And if they want to do that incendiary stuff, good for them. We're going to calm it down and try to parse it through.

In a sense, one of the challenges for CNN, you know, they're saying we're trying to show that there is an audience for straight-ahead news. So that raises the question of A) can they prove that? And B) if they, you know, are having troubles as part of that, their execution of their plan as much as the notion that there's an audience for news.

You know, the problem for CNN is now with the Web we don't have to turn on the television if we're at work or even if we're at home to see what the latest events are. We can immediately toggle to another Web browser and just call up their Web site or other Web sites and it'll provide us instant updates too.

So the question is, you know, what is vital? What is the necessary component, the magical ingredient that forces us to turn on their channel?

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Drew(ph) in Hobolt(ph), California. Drew, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DREW (Caller): Hi there. Actually, a lot of the stuff that we're saying here with your guest I think is exactly right on the point with all the multiple news out there. You know, I'm somewhat liberal myself and, you know, I'm going to go look, you know, at the Internet. I'm going to listen to NPR. I'm going to get my news, hard news information, from other sources. And then I'm going to be tending to watch Fox News to hear what the latest round of inflammatory rhetoric is. I think it's the same reason why Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" will talk about Glenn Beck and everyone else, because as a somewhat liberal person, I'm looking to them and I'm saying, oh wow, this is going to be the next thing that all the conservative folks around me are going to be saying.

So I need to know what it is their talking points are. And then, you know, I just see CNN for hard news, that sort of thing. It's going to all go down kind of towards that inflammatory, incendiary rhetoric that we're talking about to actually be able to make money. And that's what I see.

ROBERTS: Drew, thanks for your call.

David, is CNN's business model sustainable? I mean, is there a room for hard news on cable?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if what they're saying is true and that they are, you know, reaping significant and sustained and at times even record profits in recent years, then you would argue yes. I mean, after all, they have the formula that newspapers are struggling with online, which is they are paid twice. CNN and other cable channels are paid both for the advertisements that run on their air and also for subscribers. Cable providers have to kick back to them a certain fee for everybody subscribing to them in order for them to be allowed to be carried on their channel.

So here in New York, Time Warner Cable has to kick some money over to CNN. And these days, by the way, Time Warner Cable and Time Warner Broadcasting, which is what owns CNN, are separate companies. So they've got two revenue sources. In addition, they feel that they have something of a halo effect because of their brand. Their brand they've promoted for years is trust. You know, they say you can come to us as a safe place for objective journalism.

I think the challenge for them is differentiating how they report in their straight news, their story-telling, their choice of stories. They clearly have greater journalistic resources than, say, MSNBC and Fox News. But, you know, will people turn to them when there's not a time of crisis? I think you see less of that and their ratings show that.

ROBERTS: Have there been any rumors about CNN considering changes?

FOLKENFLIK: If you think about the early part of the past decade, you know, CNN sort of had a carousel of executives being brought in and flung out with great force. Under Jon Klein, there's been much greater stability. You know, the leaders of CNN and Turner Broadcasting have felt as though they wanted to have a strategy and stick with it. And Klein is a forceful advocate for the idea that, you know, they - actually, to be honest, they often talk about NPR as a model. They want it to be a place for civil discourse, they want it to be a place where the news is explored in an intelligent and informative way. Now, some critics take issue with both of those contentions. But that's their path. That's what they believe that they do.

So Larry King, you know, his interviewing style is a little different than yours, a little different than Neal's. But, you know, it sits in the middle of that primetime program precisely because it's been one of their most successful programs. Otherwise, however, they've purged elements like "The Lou Dobbs Show," which, you know, in which he was often contradicting the reporting of his own correspondents on issues like immigration, on questions of the spread of infectious diseases, and other matters - the question of President Obama's lineage and whether he was in fact born in this country. Dobbs raised questions even as, you know, the question seem to be definitively answered by their own reporting. So that was an issue for their brand. It was a cognitive dissonance that executives there felt ultimately they couldn't abide and you saw them part ways last year as a result.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So ratings are one thing. Advertising dollars, obviously, are another. If CNN does start to lose money at the rate that it is losing audience, does that change the game?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think if you saw a plunge in profits that mirrored the plunge in ratings that we've seen, and if this particular drop in ratings were to be sustained over time, I think pressure would mount in a significant way to overhaul the approach the channel has taken. On the other hand, I don't know where they go. MSNBC has received strong success with the leftward tack it's taken - particularly in the promotion of two of its stars, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow.

Keith Olbermann's repeat at 10:00 at night Eastern time is also quite successful. You know, it's not an inconsiderable show on its own. So you know, as I'm looking at it right now, it outranks some other shows that appear on cable itself. You know, CNN right now is competing at times not just with MSNBC and with Fox News but with its sister channel, Headline News, as it used to be called. And it's a real challenge for them, but where's the niche for them? They can't go right. Fox News owns that. It's hard for them to go left. MSNBC has successfully claimed that in recent years. What's their niche?

ROBERTS: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent. He joined us from our bureau in New York. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: My pleasure.

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