Network has sizable advantage over rivals

The first month of the Obama presidency has been a good one for Fox News Channel, which has opened up a sizable advantage over its rivals at a time when cable news viewing — surprisingly — is up over last year.

Third-place cable newsie MSNBC was on the rise as well, with Rachel Maddow powering the net to its strongest February to date.

Nielsen estimates that an average of 4.52 million viewers were watching one of the three all-news nets in primetime during the February ratings period (Jan. 26-Feb. 22), up 5% vs. February 2008. Interest in the Obama presidency and the escalating economic crisis have helped cable news gain ground vs. last year, when talk of the presidential election was heating up.

Fox News rose 29% vs. February 2008 (2.41 million vs. 1.88m), CNN, which aired two highly rated presidential debates a year ago, slid 31% (1.16m vs. 1.67m), and MSNBC gained 23% (951,000 vs. 773,000).

Fox News, whose primetime aud in February trailed only USA and TNT among cablers, beat CNN and MSNBC combined in total viewers. “The O’Reilly Factor” remains the pacesetter, averaging 3.61 million viewers and 803,000 in the target news demo of adults 25-54.

On numerous nights during the month, “O’Reilly” was the most-watched primetime program on all of cable.

Also for Fox, 9 o’clock entry “Hannity” (formerly “Hannity and Colmes”) was up more than 30% with 2.77 million viewers overall and 671,000 in 25-54. And “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” rose more than 20% to reclaim the top spot in demos at 10 p.m. over “Anderson Cooper 360,” which had led a year ago in 25-54.

Also contributing to the net’s primetime gains were nice showings earlier in the evening for a pair of newbies: Former CNN anchor Glenn Beck averaged 2.17 million at 5 p.m., and “Special Report With Bret Baier” drew 2.06 million at 6 p.m.

Noteworthy elsewhere during February was the strong showing at 9 p.m. for MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which averaged 1.22 million viewers overall and 383,000 in the 25-54 demo — doubling the net’s performance of a year ago in both categories.

“Maddow,” whose show bowed last September, is closing in on CNN vet “Larry King Live” (1.50 million, 407,000 in 25-54).

Leading into “Maddow,” “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” (1.36m overall, 446,000 in 25-54) was up 15% year to year.

Overall for the month, USA (3.41 million viewers overall, 1.52 million in 18-49 and 1.61 million in 25-54) and TNT (2.49m, 1.18 in 18-49 and 1.25m in 25-54) were the top cablers, with both up by double-digit percentages across the board.

Cartoon Network and ABC Family were also notable gainers, each ranking in the top 10 in total viewers. Family shot up by 36% in 18-34 to rank seventh among cablers.

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