Fox News is cable champ

After getting mixed ratings report cards in 2009, CNN and MSNBC are adjusting their lineups in the coming weeks as they try to lure back viewers who drifted away after the 2008 election.

The changes at the two channels come after a year in which Fox News grew even stronger, bolstered by outspoken hosts such as Glenn Beck, who used his show to rally opposition to the Obama administration.

In prime time, Fox News averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 7% rise over 2008, the network’s best showing in its 13-year history, according to Nielsen.

Remarkably, every program on the network’s schedule expanded its audience in 2009. Beck, the channel’s newest hire, averaged 2.4 million in his 2 p.m. PST show, a 95% boost for the time period. The Bret Baier-anchored newscast “Special Report,” which follows Beck, grew 25% to 2 million viewers. And Bill O’Reilly continued his reign as the most-watched cable-news host, logging 3.3 million, a spike of 13%.

Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC, which enjoyed the biggest gains during the 2008 election, lost viewers in prime time this year. CNN dropped 30% to an average of 903,000 viewers, while MSNBC fell 12% to an average of 811,000.

But MSNBC’s ability to hold on to a bigger share of its audience helped the network reach a prime-time milestone in 2009: For the first time, it beat CNN among 25- to 54-year-old viewers, the age group most sought after by advertisers. MSNBC averaged 280,000, a drop-off of 24%, while CNN fell 42% to 264,000.

Rachel Maddow was a particular bright spot for MSNBC, increasing her total audience by 14% over 2008 and matching CNN’s Larry King in the advertising demographic.

“I think for the first time we have appointment viewing,” said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. “That’s the difference between us and CNN: We have these powerful personalities.”

CNN executives stressed that the network still logged its biggest audiences in five years, aside from its record-setting ratings in 2008, and handily beat MSNBC in the full day.

“We’d always like to get as many ratings points as possible, but we know and our competitors know that we’re in a 24-hour business, not a three-hour business,” said CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein. “We’re very happy with the performance that we turned in and the journalism we do day in and day out, which no one can match.”

Coming out of the election, CNN has emphasized its news chops, arguing that its neutral reporting makes it singular in cable news. Executives stress that the network eschews the heated commentary that dominates the prime-time schedules of other networks, including its sister channel HLN, which posted its best ratings in 2009.

CNN dropped its last opinion show in November when longtime anchor Lou Dobbs left the network after his commentaries on immigration drew protests. He will be replaced early next year by John King, a veteran political reporter.

Klein said King’s move to Dobbs’ former time slot is the biggest change he plans to make at the network in the coming year.

“He’s indicative of what we’re about: passion for the news, depth of knowledge, reporting ability,” Klein said. “That’s CNN and that’s what John King is all about.”

The network’s afternoon lineup is also undergoing some tweaks. Beginning Jan. 18, “The Situation Room” will start an hour later to make room for a new two-hour show dubbed “Rick’s List,” anchored by Rick Sanchez, who uses his Twitter feed to shape news segments.

“Rick Sanchez brings a lot of passion and an ability to connect with audience via social networking in a way that no one else has,” Klein said. “I wanted to give him more of a footprint.”

MSNBC, meanwhile, is remaking its daytime lineup after a schedule of personality-driven programs it launched this summer failed to catch on. The network placed fourth in the ratings during much of the day, behind CNBC.

“We experimented to see if we could extend that during the daytime and honestly that didn’t work,” Griffin said. “We’re going to go back in early afternoon to more news, aggressively fast-paced.”

Beginning Jan. 11, former CNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan will lose his two-hour morning time slot and move to 4 p.m. He’s being replaced by Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie, NBC’s White House correspondents, who will anchor a 6 a.m. PST political news show called “The Daily Rundown.” The rest of the day will include newscasts anchored solo by David Shuster, Tamron Hall, Contessa Brewer and Andrea Mitchell. The network also canceled a daily medical show hosted by NBC Chief Medical Editor Nancy Snyderman.

Aside from shoring up daytime, Griffin said his main goal in 2010 is to expand the network’s prime-time audience. For the first time, MSNBC hired its own in-house marketing team to study the network’s brand, which Griffin said still lags behind CNN in public awareness.

Ultimately, he said, the network needs to position itself more broadly than its current tag line “The Place for Politics.”

“We don’t have the answer, but we’re working on it,” he said. “I want to make some noise in 2010. I want MSNBC to continue to be thought of as pushing boundaries.”

Griffin said he also wants to increase the network’s share of the audience during breaking news events, coverage that Fox News and CNN now dominate. “We’ve got to start chipping away at that,” he said.

MSNBC didn’t fare well in that area on Christmas Day, when it was the only news channel that did not provide extensive live coverage of the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight.

Instead, the network continued to air taped documentary shows about animal extinction and sex trafficking, cutting in occasionally with news updates.

Griffin did not answer directly when asked if he was pleased with the network’s approach to the story.

“We chose to stick with our own programming because there was no news coming out,” he said.