A funny thing happened in the ratings war between America’s two biggest 24-hour cable news networks, CNN and Fox. They both claim to be the No. 1 cable news channel in America.
The dispute — based on viewership numbers from the benchmark ratings service, Nielsen — has heated up since June. Not only did Fox beat CNN two-to-one in weekday prime time ratings over the three-month quarter but long-time also-ran MSNBC also edged out CNN, which finished in third place for the first time in its 29-year history.
So two weeks ago, CNN launched a counteroffensive ad claiming that, based on Nielsen numbers, it’s still the No. 1 cable news network, when you add up the total number of viewers who watch each month. And it’s been for the last seven years.
Who’s telling the truth?
Nielsen claims the numbers are accurate.
It’s a matter of spin.
CNN bases its claim on a viewership figure known in the industry as a “cume” — short for cumulative. A cume is the total number of people who watch during a certain rating period.
But the “cume” figure is not the accepted industry — or even public — standard of how the popularity of TV show is measured. It is the Nielsen ratings that make “American Idol” the No. 1 show in America in 2008 and the Super Bowl the perennial most-watched show of the year.
Ratings are calculated by taking the total number of viewers watching and multiplying it by the amount of time they watch. Since people spend bigger stretches of time watching Fox than they do CNN, Fox wins the ratings war and the legitimate claim to be the No. 1 network.
When CNN launched ads on its network proclaiming it’s still the ratings champ, MSNBC, which had just beaten CNN in prime time rating for the first time in MSNBC’s 13 year history, was so perturbed it asked Nielsen to double-check the CNN’s claim.
MSNBC spokeswoman Alana Russo — who quipped in the Los Angeles Times that CNN ads were an indication the network had gone from “news to fiction writing” — said this week CNN had to change its ad after the complaint.
CNN spokeswoman Carolyn Disbrow said that the network did not change the ad. It still proclaims CNN is “No. 1, with more viewers than Fox and MSNBC.” All CNN did was append a line citing Nielsen as the source of its information.
As for Fox, when the high quarterly figures came out in late June, spokesman Richard White said his network had outgrown the category of 24-hour cable news and it was now the No. 3 advertising-supported network in all of cable TV, trailing only USA and TNT.
“The war [with CNN] is over,” he declared.
CNN worldwide president Jim Walton defended his networks’ cume numbers and agreed that the battleground in cable news isn’t the same battleground it used to be. It’s not confined to TV or even America.
The battle is now on TV and the Internet, where Nielsen “fusion” numbers show CNN has the most viewers watching its shows or streaming and reading its news updates on CNN.com, around the world. And CNN is winning that battle going away, said Walton.
“We really don’t care how consumers around the world get the news,” he said. “We’re leading on cable TV, leading in digital through CNN.com on mobile and on cellular. Nobody comes close when you’re talking about combined audience.”
To critics who see a bleeding CNN taking a beating from Fox’s prime time tag team of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Greta Van Susteren, Walton replies that CNN is still growing and still healthy almost three decades after Ted Turner launched it.
“We’ve had five consecutive years of double-digit profits growth,” he said. “And our forecast is we are going to be profitable again this year.” He declined to comment on the Fox’s prime time drubbing of his team of Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown and Larry King. According to Nielsen, CNN’s prime time viewership is down 10 percent from the same quarter a year ago while Fox’s is up 35 percent.
“I’m not going to discuss the competitors, unless it’s facts,” said Walton. “I’ll just deal with facts. It’s a fact that Fox has a program on at 9 o’clock [“Hannity”] but what their content is is in the eye of the beholder.
“What I will say about CNN is that we have a clear foundation of journalism. We want to be accurate above all else. We want to be timely. We want to go to where the news is, not just talk about it.”
And as for what advertisers think about the ratings claims, the head of global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather’s interactive division, Robert Davis, said his firm parses the audience and ratings numbers and demographics even deeper than CNN and Fox and MSNBC before they buy time on the networks’ TV programs or Web sites.
“Who’s number one and who’s number two is not as important as where is the audience I want to reach,” said Davis. “It’s important to the networks because they think if they can make that claim ‘I’m number one!’ even more people will tune in.”