The ratings results are in for the first quarter of 2009, and they’re not pretty for CNN, which, after riding high for much of the election year, has fallen to third place in the primetime ratings for the first time. Fox News’ primetime is up 24% on the year, MSNBC up 22% and CNN is down 10%. (The one bright spot for the larger CNN family—owned, like TIME, by Time Warner—is that HLN, formerly Headline News, is up 62%.)
There are three networks and three stories here, so let’s take them in ratings order:
Fox News. The question last year—as Fox was losing ground during the primaries to competitors and coming off a relatively weak couple of years—was how the network, after a long time at number one, would stay there in a new political era. The answer: by doubling down on its marquee conservative hosts (Hannity dropped Colmes, while O’Reilly is still tops in the ratings) and cultivating new talent. Glenn Beck’s new Fox show is at 5 p.m., so he isn’t included in Fox’s primetime numbers, but by pulling over 2 million viewers in that once-moribund hour, his lead-in certainly helps. He’s done it by adding a voice of populist, aggrieved conservatism that taps into resentment over bailouts and Obamaism in general. His emotional rollercoaster of a show can be loony, but it’s also weirdly compelling.
MSNBC. The resurgent network, whose nighttime hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are the liberal counterpoint to Fox’s, seems to be succeeding for the same reasons that it was gaining last year: there’s an audience for clearly defined ideology and opinion in cable-news primetime, which CNN is learning to its detriment. CNN might argue that MSNBC only barely overtook it (and still trails in overall daytime), but keep in mind that MSNBC has done this while airing a rerun at 10 p.m. E.T.
CNN. The cable-news oldtimer has long struggled with how to keep an audience when there isn’t breaking news, and that’s more true than ever now. It can rightly claim that it was bound to lose viewers after the election—but its competitors haven’t. CNN can count on people to tune in to find out what happened on election nights or during disasters; but when it comes to what should happen—the stuff of so much day-to-day cable news—the cable-news audience prefers Fox and MSNBC, which take a side. (You can’t really claim that this is a slow news time, after all; but the nature of the news is different.) CNN has tried to remedy this with the “attitude” of hosts like Campbell Brown, but it’s a half-measure, and the audience is treating it like one.
As for HLN? Search me. Maybe people are just really afraid of Nancy Grace. I know I am.