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Big personalities rate on cable news

Viewership for Bill O'Reilly's show, the most popular prime-time cable news program, is up 33 percent from last year. Viewership for Bill O'Reilly's show, the most popular prime-time cable news program, is up 33 percent from last year. (jeff christensen/associated press/file 2007)
By David Bauder
Associated Press / February 28, 2009
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NEW YORK - The end of the presidential campaign hasn't meant the end of interest in cable news programming, particularly those shows that filter stories through the strong points of view of their hosts.

Fox News Channel and MSNBC showed double-digit percentage increases in viewership in February, compared to the same month a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNN showed some declines, which the network partly attributes to extraordinary viewership for presidential debates it held in February 2008.

Plainly, the story of a new administration dealing with an economic crisis drives interest. But cable has moved in the direction of programs centered on a host with strong views, and it's apparent that viewers became used to them during the campaign and stuck around for the start of the Obama administration.

"Those of us who have strong personalities in prime time are going to do better at this," said Phil Griffin, MSNBC's chief executive.

Fox News Channel is up 29 percent in total viewership this month compared to February 2008 (Nielsen's February measurement is actually Jan. 26 through Feb. 22), and it remains the cable news leader.

"The O'Reilly Factor" - the most popular prime-time program on cable news (3.6 million viewers) - is up 33 percent over February 2008. "Hannity" is up 38 percent from the year before, when Sean Hannity was partnered with since-departed liberal cohost Alan Colmes.

For Fox, it's a resounding answer to the notion that the network would lose audience or influence with the beginning of the Obama administration. Those who predicted that may have forgotten the network established its popularity during the Clinton administration.

O'Reilly's nemesis, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, is up 32 percent to nearly 1.4 million viewers, Nielsen said. Rachel Maddow's talk show had 1.2 million viewers, more than double what the network aired in her time slot last year.

MSNBC's Griffin acknowledged he was surprised the numbers have held up so well. "The game has changed," he said. "The news game is on cable. We are still in an interesting, important time when people are glued to what's going on. . . . The voices they hear on cable are the ones they've come to identify with."

While Griffin predicted that CNN would have to make changes to stay relevant, CNN US president Jon Klein said he's bullish on the network's prime-time approach, which he defines as telling stories with no political agenda. He noted that CNN had its best February taking into account all time slots since 1995, when there was no Fox News Channel or MSNBC.

"That's how we have made our name - by separating ourselves out from the predictable, impotent rage of the partisan extremes," Klein said.

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