Cabler up, but net still ahead in post-hurricane ratings

CNN scored the biggest increase, but Fox News Channel remained dominant as hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew in big third-quarter ratings for the cable news outlets.

Fox finished the quarter averaging 1.2 million daily viewers, up 31% from last year, followed by CNN with 693,000 viewers (a 39% increase) and MSNBC with 300,000 viewers (up 11%).

Across-the-board increases were driven by September numbers, which were affected most by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

A big news month helped MSNBC out of the ratings cellar, pulling it ahead of CNN’s Headline News (267,000 daily viewers), which had enjoyed a big lift from soft news “Showbiz Tonight” and “Nancy Grace” in primetime.

In primetime, Fox reasserted its dominance by recording 2.3 million viewers, the highest quarterly viewer total in its history. Fox primetime tentpole “The O’Reilly Factor” remained the most-watched cable news program with 2.8 million viewers.

The 24-hour cable news net format was uniquely suited to covering Katrina and its aftermath. Fox, CNN and MSNBC dispatched hundreds of personnel to affected regions, and they exposed dramatic inadequacies in the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters.

Former FEMA director Michael Brown faced a congressional hearing Tuesday, an outcome directly related to the daily pictures of human suffering that came out of New Orleans.

CNN enjoyed huge hourly increases, as is frequently the case during periods of big news. Net’s recently launched “Situation Room” saw a 100% increase in viewership over its three-hour afternoon air time. Lou Dobbs was up 60%, Anderson Cooper 82% and Paula Zahn 85% from last year.

CNN benefits from easy comparisons to last year because its numbers suffered during the September 2004 Republican convention, an event that drew additional viewers to Fox.

Cable turned in boffo numbers during September: 1.8 million for Fox (up 52%), 1.3 million for CNN (up 120%) and 505,000 for CNBC (up 70%).

For cable news, the challenge is to find a way to retain some of those viewers who flock to the tube during big news stories. The O.J. Simpson trial gave CNN a long-term lift in the mid-’90s, and 9/11 helped put Fox on top of CNN for good.

But while Fox retains an enormous lead, several hours became more competitive during September. The second two hours of CNN’s “Situation Room” beat Fox’s “Your World With Neil Cavuto” and “The Big Story With John Gibson” in the 25-54 demographic, but Fox retained a handy lead in overall viewers.

MSNBC’s once-moribund primetime showed some signs of life in the third quarter. Rita Cosby increased ratings in the net’s 9 p.m. hour by 67%, and Joe Scarborough, who was one of the first reporters in Biloxi, Miss., saw ratings up 59%.

CNBC’s “Mad Money,” the freewheeling investor show hosted by Jim Cramer, increased the net’s 6 p.m. perf by 141% in the third quarter and became the financial net’s highest-rated show in primetime.

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