Personalities pump nets

Cable news audiences grew broadly in January, driven by ratings gains for opinionated hosts helped by the Democratic takeover of Congress and a presidential field stocked with celebrities.

The highest-rated hour in cable news was the president’s State of the Union address, which drew 4.6 million total viewers to cable; 45 million watched one of the broadcast nets.

MSNBC had the biggest growth among cable news nets in January, up 75% in primetime and justification for its new tagline “the fastest-growing news channel.”

CNN also saw gains, but it’s increasingly a two-horse race for second to Fox News Channel as MSNBC posted its smallest gap with CNN in total viewers .

FNC marked its fifth year in first place in January, with total-viewer numbers essentially flat from the previous year. The network’s primetime lineup is up 9% over last year, averaging more than 1.9 million total viewers vs. 920,000 for CNN and 618,000 for MSNBC.

FNC was sixth in all of basic cable behind USA, TNT, TBS, A&E and Lifetime, while CNN and MSNBC were 25th and 31st, respectively.

Seeing the biggest growth were partisan, personality-driven shows, a model invented by FNC with hosts Bill O’Reilly and “Hannity & Colmes.” “The O’Reilly Factor” continued its run as the highest-rated cable news show with an average of 2.5 million viewers a night, up 5%, padded thanks to a highly rated appearance by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

CNN’s biggest growth came in the 6 p.m. hour, with Lou Dobbs’ opinionated newscast “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” which gained 51% in total viewers and 98% in the 25-54 demo over last year.

MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” as close to a liberal firebrand as exists in cable news, also was up sharply, by 83% in total viewers and 83% in the 25-54 demo. Headline News’ Glenn Beck, a conservative talkradio host, saw gains of 63% in total viewers and 70% in the 25-54 demo.

MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” was up 50% in total viewers, 47% in the 25-54 demo.

MSNBC’s little-noticed morning host Don Imus grew 47% in total viewers, edging CNN’s “American Morning” 356,000 to 355,000.

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