Eat The Press

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On election night, the Democrats swept Congress, and CNN swept to a surprise victory over Fox News in the all-important 25-54 demo, beating out the perennial frontrunner to win the total day and coming within a hairsbreadth of meeting their total primetime numbers. The next day, CNN won it all — the demo, total viewers, almost every hour from 10 am to 3 am. Compared to Fox's usual ratings supremacy, it was a rout.

In the week and a half since the election, the numbers have settled somewhat, and Fox is back to number one. But there is no denying the trend: CNN, and now third-place MSNBC, are steadily gaining in share, and Fox is, well, not. It's still the leader, but even before the election it was showing signs of slippage: Its October 2006 numbers reflected a 2% drop in total day and a 9% drop in primetime. CNN was up 15% in total day and lost only 1% in primetime — while underdog MSNBC enjoyed a double-digit jump on both fronts with a 34% leap in day and a 15% hike in primetime, the only network of the three to post gains.

So what does this mean for the Fox News Channel? For the first time in six years, it had to deliver bad news to its audience, and now that the Democrats control Congress they may have to cnn_logo.gifrecalibrate their message and delivery to keep constant. How they will do this remains to be seen, but last week's leaked internal memo from FNC News VP John Moody gives us some indication. Moody's memo was a directive to his staff to "be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled congress" and not to forget that "Just because the Dems won, the war on terror isn't over." Aside from setting the blogosphere abuzz over Moody's blatant partisanship, it's interesting to note that the memo was essentially a directive to maintain the pre-election status quo. Furthermore, the instruction to seek out what we'll arbitrarily dub "Fox-friendly" news suggests that, at least right now, it's in pretty short supply. Both indicate that the news environment has changed, and that Fox is struggling to adapt.

Whether it will regain its footing as the voice of the opposition remains to be seen; it's certainly starting off with a comfortable lead, particularly in primetime where the O'Reilly juggernaut is king. But wait, then there's King, and Cooper: Last Thursday, for example, they were numbers two and three respectively, beating out Hannity & Colmes. The following msnbc-1.jpgslots alternated between the two — Wolf Blitzer, Shep Smith, Lou Dobbs, Greta Van Susteren, Paula Zahn — with MSNBC bringing up the rear with Olbermann, Matthews and Scarborough. Those kind of results aren't sudden, but indicative of a trend that started before the election with the success of CNN's "Broken Government" program and Dobbs' town halls (incidentally, CNN has pushed Dobbs to seven times per week). Meanwhile, Olbermann continues to get press, and numbers (and then more press), and MSNBC has been definitively on the rise, enjoying the "best competitive ratings in recent memory" according to General Manager Dan Abrams.

It's only the first week post-election, and it's early to tell. Fox still easily pulled number one in the ratings this week (and still seems to be proceeding with its planned business channel, which may yet add an interesting dimension to the discussion). But the winds are shifting, and the trends are clear: CNN and MSNBC are unquestionably on the rise. What that and the new political reality means for Fox News is not yet clear. It could go either way; that is to say, two of three possible ways. The third way isn't looking likely. It's "up."

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