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A ratings downer for Fox News

Times Staff Writer

Some recent ratings news no doubt gladdened the hearts of Fox News Channel haters.

First, Nielsen Media Research reported that Fox News’ overall prime-time lineup dropped 17% last month compared with a year ago (MSNBC grew 16% during the same period, while CNN plummeted by 38%).

Late last week, a reliable television industry website, TVNewser.com, reported that in April, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had his worst month in nearly five years among viewers age 25 to 54, the most coveted audience in TV news.

Although the network still churns out ratings light-years ahead of competitors’ and O’Reilly remains cable news’ No. 1 host, Fox News’ explosive growth appears to be, like the president’s 90% approval rating in the days following Sept. 11, a relic from the first Bush term.

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That’s the elephant in the room, of course -- the broadly assumed, and occasionally documented, affinity between Fox News and the current administration (Vice President Dick Cheney’s office prepared a hotel checklist, recently posted on TheSmokingGun.com, that ordered “all televisions tuned to Fox News” during Cheney visits). Could it be mere coincidence that O’Reilly, populist scourge of both Clintons and countless left-wing causes, is seeing his still-formidable nightly audience of 2.1 million or so start to shrink in tandem with the Bush/GOP’s rapidly fading grip on the electorate?

O’Reilly’s thoroughly delighted rivals think not.

“When the stock market was through the roof in the ‘90s, people used to sit around and watch CNBC and slap high fives and say, ‘I made another hundred bucks today!’ ” said MSNBC host and O’Reilly foe Keith Olbermann, adding that CNBC’s ratings quickly went south when the tech bubble burst.

“I think the same psychology applies to Fox. They’ll always have their hard-core audience that wants to hear, ‘Everything’s great! [Bush is] doing a great job.’ ” But less-partisan viewers are drifting away, Olbermann argued.

Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, agrees. “Maybe this is part of the deal with the devil you make when a supposed news network allies itself so closely with one point of view,” he said.

To be fair and balanced here: Olbermann’s “Countdown” competes head to head with “The O’Reilly Factor” and the two hosts have been engaged in a months-long feud. Although Olbermann’s ratings climbed 35% last month, his total audience remains less than one-fourth the size of O’Reilly’s.

As for CNN, its lineup showed far greater erosion last month than Fox’s. “We’re down because we had such a phenomenal year last year,” Klein said. The one major growth story at CNN? Lou Dobbs, whose program seems to add viewers in direct proportion to its host’s fiercely expressed views against illegal immigration.

Fox News says CNN is merely trying to deflect attention from its own woes. “It’s always amusing to watch Jon whistle past his graveyard of failures like Anderson Cooper and ‘American Morning’ as Fox trounces CNN in breaking news and ratings,” Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti wrote in an e-mail. “We suspect Dick Parsons isn’t nearly as entertained.” Parsons is the chief of Time Warner, CNN’s parent.

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Fox News says it’s hardly surprising its ratings are down this year, arguing that recent weeks have been fairly tame news-wise compared with April 2005, when Pope John Paul II died and his successor was chosen. What’s more, O’Reilly took seven nights off last month, the network says, leading to lower ratings overall for his program. But Fox has clearly reached some sort of turning point in audience dynamics. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the network soared as if wearing flubber shoes, with gravity-defying, double-digit growth during news cycles slow and fast. Now it’s subject to the same laws of physics that encumber every mature network.

It’s possible, of course, that Fox’s loud, primary-color style of news packaging has gotten stale. It’s also true that there are limits on how big any TV programming can get, especially in a world of endless media fragmentation.

Maybe the real point, though, is not that Bush’s sinking poll numbers are hurting Fox News. Perhaps it’s that the network isn’t thoroughly engaging the issues that are giving the administration so many troubles.

Consider O’Reilly, whose program has been the bellwether of Fox’s overall rise. Yes, he’s devoted plenty of time lately to such topics as immigration and the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

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Yet on Friday, with Washington abuzz about the abrupt resignation of CIA Chief Porter Goss and Cheney’s combative speech on Thursday assailing Russia over human rights and other matters, “The O’Reilly Factor” temporized with segments about a sex offender registration law, the evidence behind date-rape claims and a controversy over Condoleezza Rice’s getting an honorary degree. (Larry King, who hosts CNN’s top-rated program, was only slightly more topical, by the way; after chatting with Christopher Kennedy Lawford about whether there might be a family curse given Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s recent drug-related traffic accident, King turned to attorney Robert Shapiro, who discussed his son’s death from a drug overdose.)

Each of these subjects has its own merits, but few would claim they dominate Americans’ thinking these days, during times of a growing energy debate, ongoing controversy over Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, worries over Iran’s nuclear aims and pending midterm elections. Talk about changing the subject.

Fox News didn’t get to be No. 1 by avoiding tough issues. Why start now?

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland.


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