In '08, big headlines for everybody

Cable news nets saw ratings jump thanks to election

NEW YORK -- As 2009 dawns, the cable news channels can look back on one heckuva year in the ratings.

Fox News Channel continued its dominance, taking the year in viewership and in the adults 25-54 demographic in primetime and total day for a seventh consecutive year. CNN logged the best year in its 28-year history in viewership and adults 25-54, as did HLN, the onetime Headline News. MSNBC gained momentum and had its best year ever.

The cable nets can thank the closely watched presidential election campaign, which began in earnest the first two weeks of January with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary and never stopped, with a close Democratic primary race and strong ratings for the conventions and debates.

Cable took the largest share of the news-viewing pie that it has ever gotten. Fox News and CNN continually broke records, with CNN garnering 13.3 million viewers for Election Night, up 109% compared with 2004.

Even now, though ratings are down from their heights, talk about the presidential transition is keeping cable news on the front burner. Fox News continues to do better than its competitors in terms of retention, however, retaining more of its Election Night audience in total day and primetime than CNN or MSNBC. In primetime, it retained 34%, compared with 9% for CNN and 18% from a much lower base for MSNBC.

Fox News not only was tops in cable news in 2008, it was the fourth-ranked network in primetime for all of basic cable. CNN, the next nearest cable news network, was 11th.

Nielsen said that 2008 was Fox News' highest-rated year in total day and primetime. It averaged 2 million viewers in primetime, compared with 1.3 million for CNN and 918,000 for MSNBC. It was a record year in viewership for "The O'Reilly Factor" (the top-rated show in cable news) as well as for "Hannity & Colmes" and "On the Record With Greta van Susteren." It also was the highest ratings year on record for "Fox & Friends," which handily beat the competition, and "Special Report With Brit Hume." The 7 p.m. news program "The Fox Report With Shepard Smith" logged its second-best year.

MSNBC was the year's fastest-growing cable network; it beat CNN in places in the demo and got close in households. Two hours in primetime -- 8 p.m.'s "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" and the newcomer, 9 p.m.'s "The Rachel Maddow Show" -- have improved the network's position against CNN for second place in primetime. "Maddow" even is beating "Larry King Live" in the demo since its Sept. 8 debut. And after losing "Imus in the Morning" in 2007, "Morning Joe" has found critical acclaim and improving ratings.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin has seen ratings gains each quarter this year. And the network says it is making money despite the economy.

"We were the also-ran. We were the place where people wondered what they could do with the channel if they shut down MSNBC," Griffin said. "Now people are crying out, 'I want my MSNBC.' That's great."

Griffin credits the careful building of fresh talent -- witness Maddow's success -- as well as what he said are smart shows that engage audiences. He also said that MSNBC's accomplishment isn't a one-time occurrence because of the election.

"This is our time. The story this year is us," Griffin said. "We developed some strong, thoughtful, forward-thinking personalities, and to a degree we're changing the business. We're not flat-footed. There's something brighter and more colorful about MSNBC."

CNN trumpeted its ratings gains as well.

"We had our best year ever in terms of ratings and our best year ever in terms of journalism and setting ourselves apart and setting the agenda," CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein said.

Klein said that CNN's success has come because of its focus on strong, nonpartisan journalism and analysis led by "The Situation Room" in the day and "Anderson Cooper 360" in the evening. He said CNN has been consciously "dialing back on the kinds of stories that cable tends to gorge on" and has made gains by going against the grain.

"We've proved you can win in cable news with solid journalism that becomes must-watch television," Klein said. "These are serious times, and we offer viewers reliable information."

"AC360" has beaten "On the Record" for first place in adults 25-54 at 10 p.m., though "On the Record" remains tops in viewership. Klein also strongly backed Campbell Brown's 8 p.m. show, pointing to ratings gains despite its fourth-place status in the time period. HLN's "Nancy Grace," for instance, nearly surpassed "O'Reilly" in the demo and beat Brown and MSNBC's "Countdown."

Klein disputes suggestions that CNN's ratings are in for a fall since there's no election driving casual news viewers cable's way. He said that those who were tuning in for the drama of the election have shaken out but that CNN has retained viewers, particularly younger ones.

"The issues that underlay the election are still with us. They've gotten even worse," Klein said.