Cabler’s newsies rise

3rd place news net gain an edge on TV giant

Third-place cable newser MSNBC is causing headaches for CNN in early primetime.

The shows of MSNBC hosts Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann are either tied with or beating CNN in the 25-54 demographic, on which news advertising is bought and sold.

With a week to go in the quarter, MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” is tied at 7 p.m. with the third hour of “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer at 155,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo.

“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” is beating CNN’s Paula Zahn 163,000 to 159,000 viewers in the demo.

In addition, Zahn is becoming a victim of the success of CNN sister net Headline News. Latter’s “Nancy Grace” is running ahead of Zahn in the 25-54 demo with 162,000 viewers.

“Chris Matthews is covering the politics beat at a time when political news is interesting to watch,” said NBC News president Steve Capus.

Olbermann has garnered big publicity for a feud with Fox host Bill O’Reilly. “He has a unique take, and people have discovered him,” Capus said.

CNN still beats MSNBC by a substantial margin in total viewers in both hours, and Fox News Channel dominates both hours with more viewers than both nets combined.

But small victories reflect a broader upturn in the ratings at MSNBC, which Headline News came close to unseating as the third-rated news net last year.

Quarter includes MSNBC’s coverage of the Olympics, which gave Matthews a better lead-in during February, but the trends are holding in March, presenting a concern for CNN and exposing Zahn and the third hour of “The Situation Room” as two of its weakest links.

The last time MSNBC beat CNN in the demo for a significant period in any hour was in the second quarter of 2001, when it ran the taped “MSNBC Investigates” at 8 p.m.

Overall, MSNBC is enjoying a ratings surge, up 26% in 25-54 and 14% in total viewers compared with the first quarter last year.