Auds droop at cable newsies

CNN was hardest hit in '04

As cable news stretches its wings and budgets to cover the tsunami story, year-end Nielsen ratings show a general decline in viewership compared with 2003, a year when viewers flocked to news nets for coverage of the invasion of Iraq.

Declines were steepest at CNN, which lost 22% of its primetime audience compared with 2003, followed by MSNBC, which lost 16%; CNBC, down 13%; and CNN’s Headline News, 11%.

Buoyed by election-year coverage that stole ratings wins from the networks, Fox was the only cable news outlet to keep losses in the single digits (2%). In primetime, FNC rang in more viewers than CNN, Headline News, CNBC and MSNBC combined.

Fox also claimed 11 of the top 12 cable news shows, led by “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity & Colmes” and “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith.” CNN’s “Larry King Live” came in at sixth and “NewsNight With Aaron Brown” at No. 13.

Fox averaged 1.67 million viewers in primetime compared with CNN’s 855,000, MSNBC’s 374,000, Headline News’ 212,000 and CNBC’s 161,000.

For measurement purposes, Nielsen Media Research ends its year on Dec. 26, which means it includes the first day of what’s becoming the second-biggest international story of the year.

The cable news channels poured resources into covering the tsunami, using Reuters, ITN and Associated Press footage while waiting for their own crews and reporters to arrive.

Fox News sent two reporters and crews to the beaches, as did NBC, whose Baghdad reporter, Kevin Sites, had been on vacation in Thailand. CNN had seven reporters in the region: four in Sri Lanka, two in Thailand and one in India.

In broadcast network news, the anchor ratings battle is beginning to look more like a horse race. ABC’s Peter Jennings is making a push to reclaim the ratings lead he lost to NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 1996, but Brokaw’s heir, Brian Williams, isn’t making it easy.

Williams claimed victory in all demographics during the fourth quarter, but Jennings is making inroads, edging out Williams in the key 25-54 demographic in the short week before Christmas.

Jennings trailed Williams by a mere 310,000 viewers in the week before Christmas, down from the 1.34 million viewers he trailed Brokaw a year ago. It was NBC’s smallest margin of victory since August.

“A short holiday week is not indicative of much,” NBC’s Barbara Levin said. “Since Williams has become the anchor, ‘Nightly News’ has an 8% advantage over ABC in the (25-54) demo.”

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