Fox tops in cable, but MSNBC on rise

'Olbermann' pumps ratings

Fox News Channel has finished another dominating quarter in cable news, but the growth story continues to be MSNBC, up 53% in primetime from a year ago on the strength of its 8 p.m. anchor “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

FNC averaged 1.6 million primetime viewers during the third quarter, led by “The O’Reilly Factor,” which averaged 2.1 million viewers a night and marked its 23rd quarter atop the cable news ratings.

In primetime, FNC averaged more viewers that CNN (901,000) and MSNBC (571,000) combined, according to Nielsen.

Cable news ratings were slightly off in the third quarter, with both FNC and CNN absorbing viewer declines from last year when the nets covered Israel’s incursion into Lebanon.

This year, all three news nets had presidential primary debates, which helped their numbers somewhat. Fox News hosted the Republicans on Sept. 5 drawing 3.14 million viewers. CNN’s YouTube debate with the Democrats drew 2.7 million in July and MSNBC’s Democratic forum with the AFL-CIO drew 960,000 in August.

In total day ratings, Fox News and CNN were down slightly, 10% and 9%, respectively, in the third quarter of 2007, while MSNBC gained 22%. In total day, FNC averaged 805,000 viewers, compared with 501,000 for CNN and 321,000 for MSNBC.

MSNBC’s primetime growth is driven by Olbermann’s “Countdown,” which averaged 744,000 viewers, a 73% increase from the same period last year.

Olbermann competes with FNC’s dominant Bill O’Reilly and the first hour of network primetime programming at 8 p.m.

CNN has no permanent host at 8 p.m. following the departure of Paula Zahn Aug. 3. The network is planning to develop a show for former NBC “Today” co-anchor Campbell Brown at 8 p.m., but it won’t debut until late February.