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Conventions help CNN narrow ratings gap with Fox News in July

Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash covering the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
(CNN)

CNN is getting larger in the rearview mirror of Fox News.

In July, Nielsen data showed CNN was the cable news leader in prime-time ratings among the 25 to 54 age group advertisers seek when buying news programming. The outlet has now topped Fox News in that demographic in five of the last 11 months.

Fox News still led the month in overall viewers, as it has every month since 2002, and like its competitors, is seeing a ratings lift this year thanks to high viewer interest in the presidential election campaign. Fox News averaged 2.83 million prime-time viewers in July, a gain of 74% compared with a year ago.

CNN averaged 1.72 million viewers, a 208% increase. MSNBC also saw triple-digit gains in July with an average of 1.3 million viewers.

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But CNN is getting some momentum at a critical juncture in the cable news business. Fox News has recently been rocked by the departure of its chief executive Roger Ailes, who was forced to resign amid sexual harassment charges against him.

While Ailes left under a cloud of scandal, his success was undeniable. He was known as a strong-willed leader who expertly managed the big name personalities at Fox News and identified topics that grabbed viewers.  Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, has temporarily replaced Ailes, but the future leadership of the channel remains unclear.

How Fox News handles the tempestuous transition will be closely watched in the TV news industry. But CNN president Jeff Zucker told the Times in an interview that his network was already on an upward trend before the recent negative headlines for the competition and there is no reason for him to alter course.

“Obviously we didn’t expect that to happen,” Zucker said of the Ailes exit. “That doesn’t change our focus at all. We’re completely focused on what we’re doing and only control what we do.”

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Fox News Channel built its lead over the years by catering to conservative viewers who did not feel their positions received enough attention from media outlets. Zucker has tapped into that audience by giving conservative commentators a higher profile during CNN’s political coverage.

“We’ve added a high number of conservative contributors,” he said. “We have seven full time contributors who are supporters of (Republican presidential nominee) Donald Trump. It’s more comfortable for a broader audience to come here now and I think it’s one of the reasons we’re doing a lot better.”

The perception of more balanced coverage enabled CNN to be the only cable news network to get primary candidate debates from both the Democratic and Republican parties.

While Fox News drew the most viewers for the Republican National Convention, as it has in past presidential campaign cycles, CNN saw significant gains over its 2012 audience levels for the event. CNN was also the dominant ratings leader for Democratic National Convention Coverage, even topping the broadcast networks in the 10 p.m. ET slot used for featured speakers.

Along with the wider array of viewpoints, Zucker also believes CNN is doing a better job covering and presenting the news after adding to its ranks of correspondents and producers.

But CNN’s growth does not appear to be coming at the expense of Fox News, which has gained viewers as well during the course of the presidential campaign.

In a company memo obtained by The Times, Murdoch praised his troops, noting that “not only is Fox News Channel on track to have its highest rated year ever, but for the first time in our history, we led basic cable in both prime time and total day for three full months in a calendar year...your talent and drive to win is a testament to our continued success.”

Fox News executives maintain that CNN’s ratings boost is driven by political events such as the conventions and that their prime-time lineup of strong personalities Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity will continue to lead the ratings when campaign events are less of a factor. Of course, keeping that prime-time team intact will be the challenge ahead for Fox News as the contracts of both O’Reilly and Kelly are up next year.

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Zucker acknowledges that the current ratings levels for all of cable news will not be sustainable in 2017 after the excitement of the election is over. But he believes CNN will be better prepared to retain more of that audience than in past years, thanks to its heavy investment in original series and documentary films that can score decent sized ratings in the lulls between big breaking news stories.

“This is an extraordinary year,” Zucker said. “Next year we’re going to offer them original series that weren’t part of the equation when large audiences came to CNN in past years like after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. We have a whole new swath of programming that will fin.”

After the success with the documentary series “The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties,” CNN will cover “The Nineties” in 2017. The channel has also announced a new historical documentary series on comedy and music. It will also have “Believer,” a series from scholar and author Reza Aslan that explores religion and spirituality.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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