The Morning After

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Last week's midterm elections were a defining moment, not only for Democrats and Republicans, but for the broadcast and cable news organizations that chronicled them. Herewith, the winner and losers from Election Day 2006:

WINNERS

CNN: CNN President Jonathan Klein must be as giddy as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi over his network's rare triumph over Fox News Channel in the key 25-54 news demo and its finish just a sliver behind in total viewers. With the most aggressive, comprehensive coverage that evening, CNN's marquee players—notably Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Greenfield and Anderson Cooper—were on point in their reporting and analysis of the historic returns. In the wake of the Democrats' victory and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation the next day, CNN's ratings stayed strong. But holding on to that momentum will be, to borrow a phrase, a hard slog.

ABC NEWS: It was an inspired move to kick off Election Night coverage a half-hour earlier than the competition and downright brilliant to use the network's monster-hit reality competition Dancing With the Stars as a lead-in. Going head-to-head at 10 p.m. ET against CBS' Katie Couric, NBC's Brian Williams and their respective teams, World News anchor Charlie Gibson triumphed in the ratings. With Gibson closing in on Williams in the nightly-news race for viewers in the 25-54 demo, afterglow from the election could push World News to the top.

RIGHT-WING PUNDITS: Whether yapping on Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio or podcasts, everyone from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh will make the most of the fresh fodder they've been handed with the Democrats' sweep of Congress. The truth is, these guys are always a lot more entertaining—and credible—when they're opposition, not when they're cheering on the winning team.

LOSERS

FOX NEWS: Fox News tried to spin CNN's performance as evidence of the rival network's liberal bias, which drew Democratic partisans looking for tales of their party's resurgence. True, CNN did pick up a couple of wins during the 2004 Democratic National Convention before returning to a distant second place, behind Fox. But CNN's coverage was simply more energetic and comprehensive than its competition, and the Nielsens reflect that. Brit Hume, who anchored the night for Fox, told the New York Observer the day before Election Day that he was “no longer as interested in politics” as he once was. Anyone who caught Hume's performance—or that of his pals on the Fox News All-Stars panel—could see the sense of deflated resignation—a turn-off to any viewer, regardless of party affiliation.

MSNBC: How can a network that was up more than 100% over the 2002 midterm elections be a loser? Because MSNBC missed the opportunity to do even better by relying more on NBC News' marquee talent—Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Brian Williams, Campbell Brown and David Gregory—while NBC was running primetime programming. Instead, there was too much Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, and too little of the news division's A-list and reports from the field. And the schoolyard spat between Matthews and Joe Scarborough made the whole operation look amateurish.

CBS and Katie Couric: Couric might have done fine in her maiden voyage anchoring Election Night. But next to the slick outfits at ABC and NBC, the relative lack of resources at her network was glaringly apparent. In virtually every area—from its team of political analysts to its broadband operation to its Washington bureau—CBS trails behind its broadcast-network competition. My guess is, Couric would gladly trade players and cash for some of her old teammates at NBC.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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