MSNBC posts solid ratings year

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NEW YORK -- MSNBC finished 2006 stronger in the ratings than it did in 2005, the only one of the four news channels to show a year-to-year increase in both total-day and primetime viewership.

Fox News Channel remains by far the leader in cable news but had the steepest declines with a 14% drop in total-day viewership compared with 2005 and a 20% decline in primetime, according to data released Wednesday by Nielsen Media Research. CNN and Headline News also showed year-over-year declines.

Despite the flurry of stories in the last weeks of 2006, it was a slow news year for the industry. There weren't the major breaking stories that spiked audience interest such as the south Asia tsunami and the death of Pope John Paul II in the first half of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina and the London terror bombings in the second half.

MSNBC, which is in third place in both total-day and primetime, withstood a challenge by a revamped Headline News. It also has seen improvements in several areas, including its so-called "Doc Block" of documentaries in late prime and a strong jump in the ratings -- and buzz-worthiness -- of "Countdown With Keith Olbermann."

These turnarounds have happened primarily during the tenure of general manager and former MSNBC host Dan Abrams. He replaced Rick Kaplan during the summer and instituted a number of changes to the primetime schedule. MSNBC's fourth quarter was particularly strong with increases of 22% in viewership and 41% in the adults 25-54 demographic.

For the full year, MSNBC averaged 385,000 viewers in primetime (up 6%) and 159,000 in the news demo (up 8%). CNN, on the other hand, was down 12% in viewers in primetime to 753,000 and down 17% in the demo year to year, while Headline News was down 4% in viewership to 335,000 and 124,000 in the demo from 2005 to 2006.

Fox News Channel remained firmly in the lead with an average of 1.4 million viewers, down 20%, and down 25% to 347,000 in the demo. But it continued to have a strong hold on cable news with 14 of the top 15 programs.

MSNBC also was the lone gainer in total day, up 8% to 263,000 viewers. Fox News Channel was off 14% to 824,000 viewers, CNN was down 7% to 477,000, and Headline News was down 7% to 218,000.
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