Tuned In

Fox Vs. MSNBC; or, Intensity Vs. Ratings

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Tuned In’s sister blog, RealClearPolitics, links this morning to a Wall Street Journal / NBC poll that finds 27% of Americans say that they get most of their news from Fox News compared with 5% for MSNBC (and 16% for CNN). When I first saw the headline, I thought: why bother asking? After all, there are already measures of viewership, which we commonly know as “ratings.” In those, we already know Fox trounces MSNBC, albeit (depending on the time of day) not by the more-than-fivefold margin shown in the poll.

Then I had another sip of coffee and it came clear that what the poll was measuring was something quite different, and—when placed next to the ratings numbers—very significant. Because how many people watch Fox et al. is only part of the story. The other issue is—for lack of a better word—how hard they watch.

On a recent weekday, Fox News drew in the ballpark of three times as many viewers as MSNBC. The poll, however, does not ask whether respondents watch a given cable channel; it asks if they get most of their TV news from that channel—and in that measure, Fox News beats MSNBC more than five-fold. In other words, Fox News has far more viewers who get their news from it nearly to the exclusion of anyone else: 27% of the people polled live in a mental Fox-o-sphere.

Assuming the poll results are credible, that means that, for all Fox’s success in viewers, where it really makes its mark is in intensity of viewership. If you take the poll numbers and the ratings numbers together, more MSNBC viewers are getting news from a variety of TV sources, whereas a disproportionate number of Fox viewers watch only Fox. So whatever Fox’s ratings, its effect on its viewers’ personal infospheres and worldviews is that much greater.

I’m not sure, then, that I agree with the RCP blog that “this is one bout the red tribe takes with ease.” Fox’s ratings dominance is undeniable, but what the poll shows is that its intensity of following is even greater—whereas “the blue tribe” is using a wider variety of TV sources. But it definitely shows that Fox News is taking this bout, in terms of its informational lock on its followers.

Of course, I’m sure Roger Ailes’ rejoinder would be that any TV news that is not Fox falls under “the blue tribe,” but that’s another blog entry entirely.