08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

CNN Ratings: The Exception Proves the Rule

Cable ratings for the first week in July have just been released, and CNN has done far better than anyone had any right to expect.

I have not written about last week's, last month's, last quarter's ratings, because there was nothing new there. CNN was down, down, down. Last quarter, FoxNews, in primetime, was up 34% in total viewers, CNN was down 10%. In adults 25-54, the key advertising demo, FoxNews was up 50% and CNN was down 19%. In total day audience, Fox was up 33% while CNN gained only 8%. And in the key demo, 25-54, total day, Fox was up 44%, and CNN was up 1%. It seemed to me that political preferences were driving viewers to Fox, while political displeasure was costing CNN its audience.

This week tells a different story. CNN has the best ratings its had in months, finishing seventh among all advertising-supported networks in primetime viewers. Fox is still ahead in third place, but it's a tiny gap compared to previous weeks, and CNN beat Fox in the 25-54 category by a narrow margin. In total day, FoxNews finished sixth and CNN ninth. And in 25-54, CNN was only 33,000 viewers behind Fox--again, a considerable improvement.

Why the exception to a sixth-month long trend? Michael Jackson. Jackson's death brought all sorts of new viewers to the cable news networks, and it's obvious that most of them turned to CNN. CNN is still seen, by most people who are not news junkies, as the place to turn to for news they really care about. It's unfortunate that the news they seem to care about is the death of an entertainer, no matter how great, when there are things happening in the world that will affect them and their children much more significantly.

I suggest that CNN and the other cable news networks spend some time thinking about how they can make it clear to Americans that the dire straits of our economy and the deep divide between us and Islamic Fundamentalists is much more meaningful to them then the death of any celebrity. It's about time the networks found ways to do interesting stories about truly serious situations. If CNN can't do that, the Michael Jackson story will remain a lonely exception.