CNN ad pitches 2 rivals a curve

Cable news channel CNN’s latest ad campaign is raising quite a few eyebrows and has a competitor crying foul.

In a new television spot aimed at getting advertisers to spend more on the network, CNN proclaims it is “No. 1, with more viewers than Fox and MSNBC.” The ad goes on to say that CNN has held the top spot for seven years in a row.

This came as a news flash to Fox and MSNBC, considering that both top CNN in the ratings. During the second quarter, Fox News -- which has been handily beating CNN since January 2002 -- more than doubled CNN’s audience in prime time and for the entire day. Even MSNBC, a onetime also-ran in the cable news wars, topped CNN in weekday prime-time ratings for the first time in the second quarter.

At issue is the metric that CNN is using in the advertisement to back its claim. The cable news channel is attributing its No. 1 status to a cumulative number that reflects anyone who watched CNN for six minutes in a given month, a tidbit it chose not to disclose in the ad.

That metric, known in the industry as “total viewers,” is not one that advertisers traditionally use when determining where to spend their money. The total viewers figure does not measure how many people watched most of a program, but rather the number who tuned in for at least a few minutes.


For example, 33.6 million people watched a few snippets of Major League Baseball’s All-Star game Tuesday night, but only 14.6 million people viewed the entire game. The latter figure is the number that determines advertising rates.

Andy Donchin, an executive vice president at Carat, an ad-buying firm that spends heavily on cable news, said that the metric CNN used was an odd choice.

“We want to reach loyal viewers who tune in for longer lengths of time . . . and hopefully are more engaged,” Donchin said.

CNN launched the campaign to convince advertisers that the all-news channel has momentum in the ratings. The network, which always does well during breaking-news stories, has always struggled in its efforts to establish a strong lineup of shows built around personalities. For example, it has pumped a lot of money into Campbell Brown’s show at 8 p.m. and Anderson Cooper’s at 10 p.m., but neither has broken through the way the network would have liked.

At the same time, MSNBC, owned by NBC Universal, has emerged as a legitimate competitor. “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” “The Rachel Maddows Show” and “Hardball With Chris Matthews” have been beating CNN’s prime-time lineup recently, and the cable channel has taken out a lot of ads in major newspapers touting that fact.

MSNBC is calling CNN’s ad “fiction” and has asked ratings service Nielsen to weigh in. Although Nielsen approves all print ads based on its data, it does not require such approval for TV spots. But if questions about a TV spot are raised, Nielsen can step in and request that claims be substantiated on screen. Nielsen has sent a request to CNN to discuss the spot.

“If we see it is misleading, we will advise them to change it,” a Nielsen spokeswoman said.

Said MSNBC spokeswoman Alana Russo: “MSNBC beat CNN in prime time last quarter. It seems to have driven our competitor from news to fiction writing.”

CNN spokeswoman Carolyn Disbrow countered that the ad was “based on fact” and added that “MSNBC is just anxious because they are not only behind CNN in the total number of individuals watching television each month, but they are trailing CNN on the Web and among the Web and television combined audience as well.”

As for Fox News, spokeswoman Irena Briganti was doubtful the spot would work with advertisers or with Jeff Bewkes, chief executive of CNN parent Time Warner.

“Jeff Bewkes is too smart to buy [CNN U.S. President] Jon Klein’s [nonsense],” she said.