Ratings Alert: War Gives Fox News Big Bump

News nets gain, general entertainment channels falter in March Nielsens

Even before the bombs started falling on Baghdad, ratings for cable news networks were mounting. And, while news has been hot in the first quarter, many entertainment channels, notably Lifetime and ABC Family, have cooled off.

With one week remaining in the first quarter, Fox News was averaging a stunning 1.8 rating and 2 million viewers. The news network has been climbing the ratings charts for weeks, even leading all other cable channels in ratings for two weeks in mid-March.

For the quarter, Fox News trailed only TNT, which recorded a 2.0 rating and 2.4 million viewers. Nickelodeon also turned in a 1.8 rating but had more viewers—2.2 million— than Fox News, according to ABC Cable Networks Group and Turner Entertainment analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

All three cable news networks have been enjoying robust growth. Fox's ratings were up 50%. CNN, with a 1.3 average, was up 44% and MSNBC was showing life with a 0.6 rating, up 50%.

Clearly, when the quarter ends on March 30, the news channels' gains will be even larger. MTV head of research Betsy Frank said, "For the next few weeks, it will be hard to find any trends other than news network dominance."

Many entertainment channels have slipped during the period. After several quarters of ratings dominance, Lifetime plunged 23% in the first quarter to a 1.7 average. ABC Family dropped off 33% to a 0.6 and the Discovery Channel lost 25% of its audience to average a 0.9 rating (sister net TLC was up 10% to a 1.1 average).

Notable exceptions included the Sci Fi Channel and Turner's TNT, which, boosted by big ratings from the National Basketball Association and reruns of Law & Order, improved 18% over last year. TNT's success is not just about "one game or one show or one event popping a number," said Turner's research chief Jack Wakshlag. "You're talking about a very strong schedule."

Sci Fi was up 25% to a 1.0 rating. Its latest miniseries, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, averaged a strong 2.7 million viewers for its three-night play in March.

Since war broke out, most entertainment channels have lost viewers. Of the major networks, Nickelodeon and the Sci Fi Channel have managed to buck that trend.

Meanwhile, viewership on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC has mushroomed since the war got underway on March 19. Fox's audience soared to 5.7 million viewers for the week of March 17 to March 23, making it the most-watched of all cable channels. "Fox has certainly come into its own," noted Frank. CNN climbed to 4.4 million viewers and MSNBC perked up to 2.4 million.

Viewers are clearly rewarding cable news networks for round-the-clock war coverage, noted Wakshlag. "Viewers are unwilling to wait for network news programs to give them the news when those programs are on."


War Stories

The networks had nearly 50 reporters in and around Iraq and last week, a few of them took time to talk to Broadcasting & Cable's Allison Romano about life during wartime