Fox News, CNN Diverge

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For years, CNN and Fox News were the top two names in cable news. But four stories this week so far illustrate the different paths the two networks have taken since President Obama came into office:

Since the beginning of March, CNN has fallen behind both the longtime ratings leader, Fox News Channel, which, as the voice of disaffected conservatives, again has an imposing lead, and the upstart MSNBC, which has tried to mirror Fox's success by steering to the left. CNN has even dipped behind its sister network HLN (formerly Headline News) on many occasions. Since the beginning of 2009, CNN has finished fourth in prime time among the cable news networks on 35 out of 84 weeknights.

The three networks have evaluated Mr. Obama very similarly - 57% positive comments on ABC, 58% positive on CBS, and 61% positive on NBC. But he fared far better in New York Times stories, where nearly three out of four evaluative comments (73%) by sources and reporters were favorable. And he fared far worse on Fox News, where only one out of eight such comments (13%) were favorable.

Even after taking the silver among ad-supported cable in the first quarter of 2009, averaging 2.26 million total viewers to USA Network's record delivery of 3.26 million, the channel won't rest until it has reached the summit. In short, FNC wants to win the prime-time ratings crown outright, and as the upfront season approaches, its ad sales team is trumpeting that message to media buyers.

CNN has finished the month of April in fourth place among the four cable news networks in the ad-friendly A25-54 demo in prime time. According to Nielsen Media Research, CNN finished the month with an average of 265,000 A25-54 viewers (Mon-Fri, 8pm-11pmET). Sister network HLN moved into third place with 274,000 A25-54 viewers on the continued success of Nancy Grace.

Synthesis: CNN is trying to uphold its news brand — and it's growing (up 25% over April 2008 — but the other networks have all the momentum (for now, at least — we'll see how things go when CNN pulls out all the stops and treat President Obama's 100th Day like Election Night, as big news nights have been CNN's specialty). Fox News is appealing to its base — only 13% of comments on the network are favorable to Obama — and it's not only winning the cable news race by a mile, it's now gunning for cable's top spot (presumably the fact that it's currently held by NBC Universal's USA only makes it that much more fun for Fox News).

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