Speeches by Laura Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Republican convention helped propel Fox News Channel to a first-ever ratings victory over the broadcast networks Tuesday night, another example of viewers’ ongoing migration to cable TV for their political news.
From 7 to 8 p.m. Pacific time, when the first lady and Schwarzenegger addressed the crowd in New York, Fox drew an average of 5.2 million viewers, compared with 5.1 million for NBC, 4.4 million for CBS and 4.3 million for ABC, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. It marked the first time that a cable news network had beaten all three broadcasters in head-to-head, prime-time coverage of a political convention.
The first two nights of ratings show that the GOP convention is drawing about the same number of viewers as the Democrats’ gathering last month.
Fox gives more prominence to conservative voices than do the other networks, so it had been expected to do well with its Republican convention coverage. Still, its victory signaled the extent to which viewers are shifting allegiances.
“It’s obvious that 24-hour cable news is where people are now going for news, especially political news,” said Bill Shine, vice president of production for Fox News. “I think we are getting closer and closer to the election, and there is more controversy out there and more news stories on both [political] sides ... and people are coming to us to see what’s going on.”
Although broadcast networks have been criticized for cutting back on convention coverage, Fox didn’t steal its audience from them. The three broadcast networks combined drew 13.8 million viewers Tuesday, slightly more than the 13.5 million for their single hour of coverage on the first night of the Democratic convention. (Commercial broadcasters had no coverage of the Democrats on Tuesday night or of the Republicans on Monday night.)
Fox, whose ratings were far higher than they were for the Democratic convention in Boston, stole viewers this time from CNN and MSNBC. CNN lost the most Tuesday, falling to third among the cable networks, with an average of 1.5 million viewers from 7 to 8 p.m. MSNBC was second with 1.6 million.
The results appear to back up a June survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which found that cable news viewing was breaking along party lines, with Fox’s audience increasingly described as politically conservative and CNN’s more Democratic-leaning.
Broadcast executives said they were not surprised at Fox’s showing. “If Fox News gets a big number at the Republican National Convention, that’s a ‘dog bites man’ story,” said one, who asked not to be named.
Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti countered: “To say that the only reason Fox won is because Republicans are watching is like saying that [HBO’s] ‘The Sopranos’ beat the broadcasters [in June] because only Italians are watching.”