But news network losing primetime ground

Depending on how you spin cable news ratings, these are either the best of times or the worst of times for CNN.

The oldest, and by purist standards, the most prestigious cable news network, the channel’s full, 24-hour schedule has achieved ratings growth of late, attracting viewers with an increasingly rare nonpartisan approach to news and information.

However, CNN is losing ground competitively in primetime, where rivals continue to successfully carve out turf with strong, polarizing voices, including Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, the biggest ratings beast in the cable news game right now.

Coming out of a big election year for the network that culminated with it finishing second in rating behind only NBC on the November night Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, CNN was down significantly in primetime during the first quarter of this year.

From January through March, the news net saw a 23% drop in its core demographic of adults 25-54 from 8 to 11 p.m., and a 10% audience drop in total viewers during that daypart. Its “Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull” lost soundly at 8 o’clock while going against the expressly biased likes of O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

The once-heated race with its more ideologically defined rival, Fox News, has officially sunk right off the pier.

Meanwhile Fox, up 25% in total primetime viewership in the first quarter, and trailing only USA Network for the entire basic-cable kingdom, says it now views broad-reach entertainment networks like USA and TNT as the real ratings competish.

In fact, these days, CNN finds itself in a race with a channel it wouldn’t have even imagined as competition just a few years ago: MSNBC. During the first quarter, MSNBC overtook CNN in primetime viewership among adults 25-54 for the first time in its 12-plus years of existence.

“You have to give credit to MSNBC,” says Carat USA media buyer Andy Donchin. “Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are pulling nice numbers in primetime. I think the story is more how well MSNBC is doing as opposed to how not well CNN is doing.”

No doubt MSNBC’s ratings are improved, but CNN is hearing primetime newsie footsteps these days even from within its Turner Networks family. HLN is up 64% in the 25-54 demo in the first quarter, trailing CNN by less than 100,000 viewers, driven in primetime by personalities including the Caylee Anthony-fixated Nancy Grace.

And HLN clearly has the momentum: For the month of March, it topped CNN among adults 25-54 on 16 of 22 weeknights.

For their part, CNN officials say any poor year-to-year primetime ratings comparison in the first quarter largely stemmed from the fact that January-March period in 2008 included four highly rated presidential primary debates that were exclusively covered by the channel. (By comparison, Fox News ran only two of these big ratings events during the same period.)

Meanwhile, CNN contends that its regular primetime shows — “Campbell Brown” “Larry King Live” and “Anderson Cooper 360″ — were all flat or up slightly vs. the timeslots in 2008.

The channel’s brass say the primetime plunge isn’t really a problem. They boast that the just-completed first quarter was their most successful since the halcyon days of the second Gulf War in 2001, with total viewership across all dayparts actually up 17%.

“Primetime is most meaningful to entertainment networks,” says CNN U.S. prexy Jonathan Klein, noting that his channel sells its commercial time in a more bundled, multiplatform way that differs from most cable networks, which deal more in the typical currency of primetime ratings points.

“We sell against all of our platforms — TV, online, international — and it’s hard to say there’s one particular daypart or hour of the day that matters more,” says Klein, who notes that CNN has generated double-digit profit growth in each of the last five years.

This may be true, but primetime is where every network spends the big bucks for talent and other resources.

And despite assertions otherwise, CNN’s recent drop during TV’s most-watched hours does represent a “significant issue” for the channel, says one ad-agency TV buyer. “You can’t crow about being the most-watched cable news network on election night, then later on say primetime doesn’t matter.”

Some say that while Fox News and MSNBC have carved out sizable audience niches with strong, partisan personalities like Sean Hannity and O’Reilly, CNN’s “no bias” approach is getting lost in the shuffle.

“I do think that in primetime, it has to be news plus,” says MSNBC president Phil Griffin. “When you have so many outlets for news, there has to be a little more.”

Still, despite CNN’s weaker competitive standing, particularly at 8 p.m., Klein doesn’t believe there’s a need for a strategy to renovate the cabler’s primetime lineup. Rather, he says CNN’s first-quarter growth throughout the total day suggests it’s finding its own unique niche in supplying unbiased news during a time when auds are clearly hungry for information about the economy and other matters.

“It’s very possible that multiple cable channels could all see their best quarters in years at the same time,” Klein says. “We don’t cannibalize each other’s audiences anymore. … Our competition doesn’t have the resources to cover the news the way we do. They’ve actually ceded news coverage to us.”

Updates were made to this article on April 10, 2009.

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