Fox News set for best year yet

Viewership solid as rivals take post-election hits

Fox News is on track to have its most-watched year ever, showing significant ratings growth despite having just come off a highflying election year.

With the second quarter coming to a close, Fox News averaged about the same number of viewers as the top three other cable news networks combined. And while rivals including CNN (-22%) and MSNBC (-18%) took hits following last quarter's inauguration-fueled boost, Fox News (-3%) remained nearly steady.

Compared with last year, the Fox News (averaging 2.1 million viewers, 509,000 adults 25-54 quarter-to-date) is up 35% over last year in primetime viewers and 48% in the demo. CNN (805,000 viewers, 210,000 in demo) fell 16% in viewers and 29% in the demo. MSNBC (787,000 viewers, 259,000 in demo) climbed 15% in viewers and about on par, -3%, in the demo. And CNN Headline News (553,000, 201,000) showed very strong growth, up 39% and 37%, respectively, and is on track for its best second quarter.

The new standings are strong enough to rank Fox News third behind USA and TNT among all ad-supported cable networks for the quarter among primetime total viewers. In its core demo, Fox News had eight of the top 10 cable news shows. It had similarly sunny increases for total day, while CNN and MSNBC were roughly on par with last year.

Earning double-digit growth after an election year is quite a feat for a news network. With Fox News best known for such right-leaning personalities as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, one might assume having a Democrat in the White House somehow helps boost viewership.

A dominant political party indeed can fuel the popularity of opposing voices -- Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" and liberal online news hubs Huffington Post and Daily Kos came to prominence during George W. Bush's tenure, just as talk radio conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and news sites like Drudge Report rose during the Clinton years.

But it's important to note that when Fox News took the ratings lead during the Bush era, some pundits declared that the network was winning only because a Republican was in charge. Those at the network get weary of outsiders assuming their success must be due to some fortunate external factor rather than their own day-to-day work.

"I don't look at who occupies the White House, I just look at it as news," said Bill Shine, senior vp programming at Fox News. "How well are you going to report on that news? And certainly, over the course of the last 10 years, we've done a better job at that than anybody else."

Still, Shine acknowledged that a Barack Obama presidency probably helps because viewers will "see some sides of an issue that they won't see elsewhere."

Back in January, Fox News made a trio of programming changes that also affected its numbers: launching Glenn Beck at 5 p.m., replacing Brit Hume with Bret Baier as "Special Report" anchor and having Hannity's new Colmes-free show. All of the programs are up compared with last year.

Over at chief rival CNN, in one measurement -- total viewers for full day -- the network actually is posting its best numbers since 2003. But CNN has had trouble in primetime, particularly with Campbell Brown's show, which has hit some ratings lows since she returned from maternity leave.

When asked about the competition, Shine said, "The numbers speak for themselves. ... If anything, we're paying attention to the non-news networks because now we want to catch them."
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