The Ratings Mirage
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Reporting on the ratings rivalry between the Fox News Channel (FNC) and CNN is often misleading -- and almost always over-hyped.
"Fox Tops CNN as Choice for Cable News," declared one typical headline in the Chicago Tribune. "Fox News Channel Continues to Crush CNN," reported Knight Ridder in a column comparing the rivalry to a party primary titled, "Fox News Channel is winning the Nielsen caucuses." Last August, the New York Times Magazine declared, looking back at the period of the Iraq invasion, "Fox was -- and still is -- trouncing CNN in the ratings."
After exposure to countless similar stories published since January 2002, when Fox was reported to have surpassed CNN in the Nielsen ratings, one might naturally conclude that Fox has more viewers than CNN.
But it's not true. On any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox.
So what are the media reports talking about?
With few exceptions, stories about the media business report a single number for ratings (often expressed two different ways -- as "points" or "share"). This number is often presented as if it were the result of a popularity contest or a democratic vote. But it is actually the average number of viewers watching a station or a show in a typical minute, based on Nielsen Media Research's monitoring of thousands of households.
The average is arrived at by counting viewers every minute. Heavy viewers -- those who tune in to a station and linger there -- have a greater impact, as they can be counted multiple times as they watch throughout the day.
When an outlet reports that CNN is trailing Fox, they are almost invariably using this average tally, which Fox has been winning for the past two years. For the year 2003, Nielsen's average daily ratings show Fox beating CNN 1.02 million viewers to 665,000.
But there is another important number collected by Nielsen (though only made available to the firm's clients) that tells another story. This is the "cume" or the cumulative total number of viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes during a given day. Unlike the average ratings number the media usually report, this number gives the same weight to the light viewer, who tunes in for a brief time, as it does to the heavy viewer.
How can CNN have more total viewers when Fox has such a commanding lead in average viewers? Conventional industry wisdom is that CNN viewers tune in briefly to catch up on news and headlines, while Fox viewers watch longer for the opinion and personality-driven programming. Because the smaller total number of Fox viewers are watching more hours, they show up in the ratings as a higher average number of viewers.
CNN regularly claims a cume of about 20 percent higher than that of Fox. For instance, in April 2003, during the height of the fighting in Iraq, CNN's cume was significantly higher than Fox's: 105 million viewers tuned into CNN compared to 86 million for Fox. But in the same period, the ratings reported by most media outlets had Fox in the lead, with an average of 3.5 million viewers to CNN's 2.2 million.
Even among Fox's core audience of conservatives, CNN has an edge in total viewership. A study by the ad agency Carat USA found that 37 percent of viewers who call themselves "very conservative" watch CNN in the course of a week, while only 32 percent tune to Fox.
Show Me the Money
Journalists who publish Nielsen numbers ought to explain that the data are not simply measures of popularity, and they are not produced as a service to journalists or the public. The figures are gathered to provide advertisers with complex data about viewer habits. It pays to remember that neither cable news stations nor Nielsen Media Research are primarily in the business of serving the public interest -- both are in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers.
Advertisers would rather see larger numbers of viewers see each ad a few times than have a smaller number watch the ad over and over again. But having a large number of viewers tune in for so short a period of time that they see very few ads is not desirable either. As Sherrill Maine, CNN's senior vice president of marketing, was quoted in the Cablefax, "We'd like Fox's [average] ratings; Fox would like our cume."
But in the race between these two for-profit ventures, the bottom line is the bottom line: From their profitmaking perspective, the channel that gets more ad revenue is winning the real ratings war. Earnings for the two channels are a contentious subject since neither network reports its revenues separate from its corporate parent, and each claims to earn more income than its rival. But many industry analysts say CNN still makes more money. Stock analyst Michael Gallant told the Chicago Tribune that while Fox is growing faster, CNN is still earning about $200 million more per year than Fox.
Furthermore, CNN apparently continues to command higher ad rates, or CPM. CPM stands for "cost per thousand" (M being the Roman numeral), the price a television outlet charges advertisers per thousand television households reached by a commercial. Though Fox claimed to have reached CPM parity with CNN last summer, CNN chair Jim Walton insisted that CNN's rate was still 40 percent higher.
In interviews with Extra!, ad buyers for three different firms (all of whom declined to be named) confirmed that CNN continues to command a higher CPM, though their estimates of the gap in prices was less than half that quoted by Walton.
One of the reasons for CNN's lead in CPM, according to the buyers, is the advertiser preference for lighter viewers. Such viewers tend to come from the most desirable demographics -- younger, busier, more free-spending. And because they're harder to reach with ads, the law of supply and demand drives their cost up.
One media buyer we interviewed analyzed the contrast between Fox and CNN in terms of programming and viewing habits, telling Extra!: "CNN is like news radio where people drop in for the news; Fox is like talk radio, where they stay longer for the opinion shows."
Interviewed in Media Week last year, media business analyst Larry Blasius suggested that snob appeal was part of the reason that he didn't think Fox would soon catch CNN in the race for ad dollars: "There are two kinds of news advertisers. If you're talking cold remedies, you're buying eyeballs. Others are looking for an environment, an image. They're looking to reach decision-makers and influencers who watch news. If you're an image-oriented product -- a BMW, Mercedes, Lexus -- it's not even a question, you go with CNN. There's no comparison in the quality of the journalism -- CNN is light years ahead in objectivity and reporting -- and I don't think Fox's 'New York Post on TV' approach appeals to the most desirable consumers."
Fox vs. Everyone Else
Fox News Channel, then, is so far neither the choice of most people who watch cable news, nor the more successful business model. But the perception that Fox is "trouncing" CNN -- based largely on the fact that the number Nielsen releases to the public emphasizes heavy viewers -- is of great use to Fox, which trumpets these ratings as a vindication of its partisan, "fair and balanced" approach to the news. Reacting to a guest's charge that Fox had a rightwing bias, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the successful "Fox and Friends" morning show, boasted: "Then what does that say about the country when they made us No. 1?"
But even in the limited sense of average hourly watchers, Fox is only No. 1 among 24-hour cable news channels. Fox, like CNN, now reaches about 4 of every 5 television households, so comparisons with broadcast news shows are increasingly valid. And among all television news sources, Fox's performance is nothing to brag about.
The O'Reilly Factor is the best-rated show on Fox, with about 2 million viewers a night. CBS Evening News, the least-watched broadcast network evening news show, routinely gets four or five times as big an audience, and that's seen as a ratings disaster. Fox's flagship news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, gets a million viewers on a good night -- a few thousand more than the local newscast of New York City's WNBC.
Fox likes to position itself as the alternative to all the other news that's on TV. As Fox News president Roger Ailes claimed in the New York Times, "If we look conservative, it's because the other guys are so far to the left." If it's true that news can be divided into two categories: Fox and everything else, then when "Special Report" airs at night, everything else beats Fox by at least 30 to one.
Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. This article has been republished with permission from EXTRA!, a publication of the media advocacy group FAIR.