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Fox News still No. 1, and not too shy to say so

Are you tired of hearing the cable news blowhards toot their own horns? Were you expecting that after the November election, the news networks would stop obsessing over endless ratings spin and maybe encourage the hosts -- who are, after all, supposed to be discussing issues of national import -- to do something besides beat their own chests?

Good luck with that.

The latest batch of quarterly and monthly cable news numbers is out, and that has prompted another frenzied round of spinning from the networks. Fox News delivered a news release celebrating Bill O’Reilly’s 100th consecutive month -- dating to 2000 -- hosting the No. 1 cable news show at 8 p.m.

To mark the occasion, O’Reilly gave an interview with a trade magazine in which he declared, “We had our people research all programs going back to the ‘50s, like ‘Gunsmoke’ and things like that. Nobody’s ever stayed on top this long.”

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This in turn earned a caustic reaction Monday night from MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, a frequent O’Reilly scourge, who noted that NBC’s “Today” and “Meet the Press” have been No. 1 in their time slots for far longer than “The O’Reilly Factor.” “The old man is getting sloppy,” Olbermann told his viewers. (O’Reilly beats Olbermann nearly 3 to 1 in total viewers.)

It’s nearly always a bad idea to look to TV hosts for candid assessments of their own ratings. But the numbers from Nielsen Media Research yield some important insights into the cable news race.

First, despite the predictions of some analysts, Fox News’ Obama-age meltdown has not occurred. In fact, since the new Democratic administration has entered office, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled network looks as dominant as ever. During prime time, where the most valuable advertising is sold, Fox News averaged more viewers through the first quarter (2.3 million) than CNN (1.1 million) and MSNBC (957,000) combined.

In a sense, this is not surprising, with hosts such as O’Reilly and Sean Hannity serving up relentless nightly criticism of the Obama administration to Fox’s loyal fan base. Fox News’ viewership was therefore up 25% in prime time compared with the first quarter of 2008, while CNN -- which has tried to stick to a newsier format at night -- has slipped 10%.

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But CNN nevertheless scored the most-watched basic cable show during the entire January-March period with its coverage of the Obama inauguration, including the speech watched by 8.8 million viewers. So people still stick with CNN during big news events. The problem for CNN continues to be how to hang on to those viewers when there’s no big news. (CNN bragged about having the best first quarter in six years when considering full-day programming. But that was heavily skewed by the inaugural hoopla.)

Meanwhile, MSNBC is up 23% compared with the first quarter of 2008, thanks in part to a big time slot improvement for the liberal talk darling, Rachel Maddow. But this strategy is not without risks: Maddow’s numbers have cooled recently, and March was her lowest-rated month so far.

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scott.collins@latimes.com

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