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Posted by on Jun 28, 2008 in Media | 5 comments

As Bush Wanes In Polls So Does Fox News’ Once-Easy Advantage

Fox News, the impressively-successful answer to years of charges from conservatives that the “liberal media” didn’t give Republicans in general and conservatives in particular a fair shake, has ridden high during the Bush years. But now there are signs that, as goes George Bush, so does Fox News‘ hold on seemingly-easy news ratings dominance.

The New York Times reports that there are signs of erosion:

When prime-time cable news ratings for the second quarter of 2008 are officially released next week, they will show that Fox News reclaimed the top spot among viewers in their mid-20s through mid-50s, those of greatest interest to news advertisers, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.

During the first three months of the year, by contrast, CNN drew so many viewers on big Democratic primary nights and for several presidential debates that it vaulted over Fox News for the first time in six years.

But the back-and-forth these last few months masks a more ominous trend for Fox News, particularly as its gears up to cover the general election campaign. The most dominant cable news channel for nearly a decade and a political force in its own right, Fox has seen its once formidable advantage over CNN erode in this presidential election year, as both CNN and MSNBC have added viewers at far more dramatic rates.

Growth and demographics are the name of the game in the TV biz. One of the most (in)famous examples was in the early 1970s when CBS axed a batch of high-rated programs including those of then-top comedians and popular rural comedies because demographics showed their audiences were older and their ratings on borrowed time.

The Times notes that the other cable news networks — CNN (which is now portraying itself as the news network that reports both sides) and MSNBC (which is now getting the reputation of being the anti-Fox, offering mostly progressively-inclined political talk and mostly NBC news) — are showing growth that Fox is not.

In the first five-and-a-half months of 2004, the last presidential election year, Fox’s prime-time audience among viewers aged 25 to 54 was more than double that of CNN’s — 530,000 to 248,000, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research. This year, through mid-June, CNN erased the gap and drew nearly as many viewers in that demographic category as Fox — about 420,000 for CNN to 440,000 for Fox.

Meanwhile, CNN has added 170,000 viewers a night, on average, when compared with the last presidential year, while Fox has shed about 90,000, according to Nielsen. (MSNBC, which added 181,000 viewers in that audience, much of it courtesy of gains by “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” still lagged in third place, with 303,000.)

And here’s the bottom line:

While Fox News remains the most-watched cable news channel over all — it has been attracting an average of nearly 2 million viewers each weeknight this year, compared to 1.3 million for CNN and 805,000 for MSNBC — its momentum has effectively stalled, at least when measured over years past. The overall prime-time audiences watching CNN and MSNBC, by contrast, have each grown by more than 50 percent this year, when measured against the same period last year, while Fox’s has increased by 10 percent, according to Nielsen. (The New York Times and NBC News, the parent of MSNBC, share some resources in covering political news.)

There are several ways of looking at this.

If the mood of the electorate and audiences truly sour on Republican presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain, and with gas prices soaring (and predicted to reach $7 a gallon within the next two years), CNN could keep adding viewers turned off by Fox’s inclination and MSNBC could keep making modest gains.

But, even so, all is not lost for Fox. Think of how Fox viewership could soar in the wake of an Obama victory if Obama doesn’t deliver on promises (and proves to be another Jimmy Carter) or DOES deliver on promises (and proves to be an effective center or center-left Democratic politician) and upsets conservative Republicans.

All three networks have turned into compelling networks to watch in terms of how they package news, pace political discussion, and promote their programs. So the race is on — but with an increasingly large number of Americans souring on Bush and the party that as administered the federal government for some 8 years, it may be that Fox News will have more trouble building its audience as viewers are less interested in watching overt and covert cheerleaders for Republicans.

Especially as they fill their gas tanks.

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