News channels in front line of networks' clash

Nowhere does the NBC-Fox feud burn hotter than on cable, where MSNBC battles Fox News Channel, and Fox is about to launch a business news network to take on CNBC.

One could argue that the feud has been good business for both networks. Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s top primetime host, broke through in the ratings when he started defining himself as the anti-Bill O’Reilly, his competition at 8 p.m.

O’Reilly, a dominant No. 1 during the hour, never refers to Olbermann by name, but frequently criticizes NBC News for everything from its coverage of the Iraq war to its bid to interview Paris Hilton.

He recently called out NBC U topper Jeff Zucker for directing his cable networks into “assassinating the characters of people they don’t like for ratings.”

Olbermann’s ratings are up 67% in the second quarter to 682,000 a night, in part explaining the frequency with which he names O’Reilly “Worst Person in the World.”

Just last week, Olbermann named his beloved “Bill-O” “worst person” once again for claiming NBC and the New York Times “don’t want Iraq to become successful as a nation or to somehow become a wall against terror.”

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, MSNBC is attempting to position Olbermann as its primetime tentpole — what O’Reilly is to Fox News Channel.

But having NBC as a foil for his rants on media bias has also been good for O’Reilly, who beats all his cable news competitors combined at 8 o’clock, with its average aud of 2.2 million a 7% rise from last year.

The competition would no doubt be nastier if the networks were closer in the ratings. Launched months apart in 1996, MSNBC and Fox News took distinctly different paths, and MSNBC has a long way to go before it can seriously threaten in any hour of the day.

Another potentially even more vicious front has opened up as Fox readies its Fox Business Network for October launch. CNBC president Mark Hoffman has spent the past year adding shows and jazzing up the network with a new generation of young, attractive talent, in anticipation of the Fox entry.

The net has also worked feverishly to lock up its own talent, and for good reason. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes helped launch CNBC and ran it for several years before jumping to News Corp.

His first on-camera hire was CNBC and NBC veteran Alexis Glick. Insiders say Fox hasn’t begun aggressively recruiting big-name talent, but CNBC isn’t taking any chances.

The biggest moving piece in this chess match is Dow Jones, whose Wall Street Journal has been CNBC’s longtime editorial partner. NBC U considered News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones so threatening that it considered a joint venture with Financial Times owner Pearson to keep the Journal out of Murdoch’s hands.

CNBC’s content deal with the Wall Street Journal runs through 2012, but if Murdoch succeeds, he will splash it all over Fox Business Network, conferring upon it a brand it took CNBC years to build.

As it stands, Fox Business Network will launch with 30 million homes against CNBC’s distribution of 92 million. It will once again put Ailes in the underdog role, a position he clearly relishes.

No one at NBC U is underestimating him.

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