The Tortoise and Hare Story of CNN and Fox News


You’ve seen the pro basketball team with two players of starkly different abilities.

One possesses a world of talent but is enigmatic. He can erupt for a 35-point game but just as easily have a bad night and miss almost every shot he puts up. He’s injury-prone too.

The other player is steady but unspectacular. He’ll never score 35 but can be depended on for 12 points or so every night. He’s predictable. And he plays hurt.

In broad strokes, that’s similar to the difference advertisers can see between the fiercely competitive cable news networks CNN and Fox News Channel. The differences in their audiences have come into sharper focus since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.


By the most common measurement, the two audiences are fairly close in size. In November, for example, an average of 905,000 people were watching CNN in any given minute, and 747,000 were watching Fox, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Yet the cumulative audience--the number of different people who tuned in for at least 15 minutes at some point in November--measured 93.4 million for CNN and 58.5 million for Fox. (MSNBC remains a distant third.)

Translation: The Fox audience is smaller but more likely to tune in regularly. CNN has a bigger pool of viewers, but if it’s a slow news day, they’re more likely to check out a program elsewhere on the dial.

“I think they’re still benefiting from being a better-known brand in terms of news,” said Kevin Magee, vice president of programming for Fox News Channel.

“If you never ate soup and your doctor said to you, ‘You have to eat soup,’ you’d probably go and buy Campbell’s,” he said. “You know that brand, they’ve been around forever, you had it as a kid, it’s fine. But if you ate soup, you’d probably wonder if there are better brands, or make your own. I think CNN benefits from being Campbell’s.”

During the week after the terrorist attacks, people hungry for news were more likely to tune to CNN instead of Fox. CNN’s average audience ballooned to 3.3 million viewers. Fox’s increase was smaller, to 1.8 million.



Fox Chief Executive Roger Ailes told the New York Times that he expected to pass CNN in revenue soon, leading Jamie Kellner, chairman of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting, to say Ailes “probably also believes he’s better-looking than Tom Cruise.”

Kellner, in an interview, said advertisers respond to the wide reach of CNN’s audience.

“If you have a big tent, you’re hitting a lot of people,” he said. “If you don’t have as many viewers, it’s like a pup tent.”

But CNN’s emphasis on the cumulative viewing figures represents a significant change in attitude. The mandate for former CNN leader Rick Kaplan was to increase CNN’s regular viewership so the network could survive the down times. He never succeeded.

Instead, Fox beat CNN to it. The Fox mix of news and a personality-driven prime-time lineup that mirrors conservative talk radio is such a success that CNN made ham-handed attempts to imitate it.

It’s not that CNN discourages regular viewers--Paula Zahn’s new morning show is a strong step toward creating a new habit--but it indicates that CNN’s new leadership better accepts reality.

“There’s an old saying: You sell what you’ve got in your truck,” said Tom Wolzien, media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.


“Clearly, CNN is a phenomenal brand and has excellent recognition,” Wolzien said. “It is the place where people go when they need to know what’s going on, and they had a reinforcement of that after Sept. 11. Fox is really a different beast. It clearly has a more loyal audience.”

Fox last week poached CNN personality Greta Van Susteren to host an evening talk show, retaliation for CNN snapping up Fox’s Zahn months earlier. Fox also hired Geraldo Rivera (from CNBC) as a war correspondent.

Between Kellner, CNN chief Walter Isaacson and Ailes, the two networks have the colorful, competitive leaders to ensure a hot news war for years to come. In less than a year on the job, Kellner has purged on-air talent, changed CNN’s look and boosted the network’s self-promotion.

“We’re probably 60% of the way to where we’re going,” he said.