Politics Add Fire to Fox News-MSNBC Battle

Fox News Channel is a dynamic, feisty network that provides
America with memorable personalities and the only truly balanced reporting. It has been
rewarded with surging ratings, and it has overtaken MSNBC.

Or: FNC is a blatantly conservative mouthpiece that got
lucky in the ratings because only far-right viewers stayed tuned to the Clinton
impeachment trial, and they watched FNC.

MSNBC, meanwhile, is a solid, reliable network with trusted
names and remarkable resources, providing America with the latest on breaking stories like
the war in Kosovo and the Littleton, Colo., shootings. It has been rewarded with surging
ratings that restored FNC back to its place.

Or: MSNBC is a liberal media outlet that botched every
effort to find primetime personalities. It got lucky with back-to-back major news stories,
which it covered well only because of parent company NBC.

Writing a story about 24-hour news channels should be a
straightforward assignment. After all, isn't a news channel all about presenting the

Well, these networks aren't pure news channels -- much of
what they dish out, particularly in primetime, is conjecture, opinion and hot air -- and
the folks who run them have proven to be as adept at spinning as they are at reporting.

In the end, there is a measure of truth in each side's

FNC is on a roll, and it has the stronger primetime lineup.
But its conservative label may ultimately hamper it. MSNBC has a longer track record and
better results with hard news, but it lacks consistency in primetime.

Of course, at this point, neither network is even close to
challenging the supremacy of Cable News Network, which dominates in every category


While a rivalry between two all-news networks is natural,
this battle has featured bad blood from the get-go, much of it coming from FNC chieftain
Roger Ailes, who once headed NBC's America's Talking (which was replaced by MSNBC).

But things became particularly heated in January, when, for
the first time, FNC, averaging 216,000 viewers, outdrew MSNBC, with 204,000 viewers in
primetime -- a truly impressive feat considering the fact that MSNBC, with nearly 50
million homes, has about 10 million more subscribers than FNC.

And while MSNBC topped FNC in total-day ratings, 152,000 to
109,000, Seltel senior vice president and director of programming Janeen Bjork pointed out
that trimming MSNBC's total by 20 percent to balance the difference in carriage leaves
MSNBC ahead by a mere 18,000 households.

Despite FNC's obvious primetime strength, Ellen Oppenheim,
senior vice president, media director at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding-New York,
cautioned, "We need to see more stability before Fox can jump up and down screaming,
'This is the wave of the future.' The numbers are not secure."

And Howard Nass, executive director, broadcast at TN Media
Inc., added that while FNC is "doing a hell of a job," the Fox Entertainment
Group-owned cable network has a way to go, since "the numbers are so freaking

FNC news director Janet Alshouse said the network
understood that the victory was limited. "No one said, 'Now that we've conquered
that, let's move on,'" she added. "But the fact that we can beat them with 9
million fewer subscribers -- that's an important story."

MSNBC disputed even that: Vice president and general manger
Erik Sorenson -- who prefers positioning the network as competing with CNN -- said,
"There's not a lot of concern" about FNC, which he denigrated as a "'Quote,
unquote' news channel that fills a particular news niche by appealing to certain types of
viewers with certain types of views. (He did concede that FNC has "very talented
people working there.")


MSNBC argued that in January, most people were tired of
President Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, except for archconservatives who,
Sorenson said, "were holding on saying, 'Maybe, just maybe, we can get Bill

FNC naturally disputed that notion. But a study by The Pew
Research Center for the People & the Press did in fact find more Republicans watching
the Senate trial than Democrats or independents.

Many industry observers agreed that viewers and insiders
think of FNC as having a conservative slant. "That is the perception, no doubt about
it," Bjork said.

FNC's shows tend to have conservative guests with bigger
names and stronger television personas than their left-of-center counterparts, although
not necessarily because FNC seeks to stack the lineup: The White House had initially been
hesitant to put administration officials on some FNC shows.

Alshouse acknowledged that Republicans want to come on
FNC's talk shows because "we can give them a voice," adding, "We have a
harder time getting Democratic leaders."

Still, she said, FNC simply covers stories that other
networks don't. She pointed out that FNC gave greater play than either MSNBC or CNN to the
recent Johnny Chang Congressional testimony. But she said the network would have done the
same had the controversy surrounded the Republican National Committee. (And, she noted, it
was a front-page story in The New York Times, which is hardly the American

Not surprisingly, the combative Ailes, who would not speak
for this article, has gone even further, saying that his network is the only fair and
balanced one. In the past, he has attacked the others -- particularly MSNBC -- for having
a "left-wing" bias.

Most industry observers declared that reasoning to be
nonsense. "CNN and MSNBC are middle-of-the-road," said Bill Carroll, vice
president and director of programming for Katz Media Group Inc.

Bjork offered the view that all news media -- despite
Ailes' proclamations -- have a conservative leaning at the top.

Voices from the far right, like Pat Buchanan or Oliver
North, are welcomed virtually anywhere, but rarely is a regular slot given to the likes of
Ralph Nader -- the sort of liberal who might blast NBC parent The General Electric Co. as
a polluter or worse. MSNBC is co-owned by NBC and Microsoft Corp.


As for FNC, Carroll said, "With Roger Ailes at the
helm, you have more conservative voices. The choices of personalities take it in a
slightly different direction. Bill O'Reilly [who continually called for President Clinton
to resign] is not a centrist commentator like Larry King. That may attract those
interested in a conservative viewpoint."

Some observers said only the commentary shows were
conservative. But others said the rightward tilt occasionally shows up in news coverage,

For instance, on Sunday, May 16, during a nonstory about
President Clinton's plane having a "near-miss" with another plane, correspondent
Brian Wilson went on a lengthy tangent about Clinton's speech to Hollywood moguls at a

Wilson repeatedly criticized the president as too
"gentle" in his reproach about violence in the media, implying that the
president was going easy on his wealthy supporters -- particularly in contrast, Wilson
said, to Clinton's criticism of the gun lobby.

Claiming that Democrats are picking on the poor National
Rifle Association and viewing Hollywood and the gun lobby as equally at fault for gun
violence -- in a culture that was trigger-happy before movies were invented -- is arguably
a conservative notion.

"If you say that you're not conservative, but you hire
people who are right-of-center, that doesn't sound logical," Nass said. "And
that undercuts your credibility a little bit."

Still, he emphasized that while FNC draws conservative
viewers, that's perfectly fine. "You have to differentiate yourself," he said,
although he warned that if the network went too far to the right of center, it could make
its niche too narrow.


Advertisers generally don't make media-buying decisions
based on which candidates the viewers vote for. "That's not how we buy,"
Oppenheim said. "If it's a program with the audience profile we want, then that's

Even controversial commentary -- like O'Reilly's call for
Clinton's resignation -- is simply part of political programming, she said. (Of course, a
few advertisers, like Warren Beatty movie Bulworth,might not buy time on
FNC, she added.)

FNC's primetime personalities were certainly attracting the
right audiences while beating MSNBC for the entire first quarter, leaving MSNBC in a bit
of a funk.

There were reports of internal debates at the network about
whether to sacrifice the hard-news approach for more of a talk-show format. (Veteran
reporters obviously opposed the idea and, at the time, MSNBC said it would not shift its

NBC News president Andrew Lack reportedly stepped up his
critiques of programs, even phoning the control room with comments.

Part of the problem at MSNBC stemmed from personnel
changes. The biggest move was Keith Olbermann bailing out on The Big Show with Keith
(to go, painfully enough, to Fox Sports Net).

But over the course of the winter, several other strong
contributors -- Jodi Applegate, Edie Magnus, Ed Gordon and Linda Vester -- moved up from
the cable network to better jobs at NBC.

Some replacements seemed suitable, like John Hockenberry,
who hosts Hockenberry at 10 p.m. Others seemed surprising. The most noise was made
about Equal Time, with Cynthia Alksne and Oliver North.

For starters, MSNBC took a fair amount of heat for hiring
North, who is not a journalist and who is far enough to the right to make some of the FNC
personalities seem positively liberal. "It seems that MSNBC is reacting to the things
we do," Alshouse commented.

Sorenson -- who said, "I continue to be surprised
about how much was made about the hiring of North" -- countered that the network had
long been planning to get a conservative voice.

"North at least gets visceral response," Carroll
said, meaning people either love him or love to hate him.

But North and Alksne had no chemistry, and Alksne was
quickly dropped, with various liberals rotating through as Sorenson searched for a


Bjork said the North move (like FNC's hiring of notorious
Internet gossipmonger Matt Drudge) was made because it would attract sampling, regardless
of whether North had the talent and presence for a full-time television job. She called Equal
and an aborted effort at a talk show with John McLaughlin "awful

But Sorenson -- who pointed out that Equal Time was
originally meant to be in the prime-access slot, and it was thrust into primetime only
because Olbermann left the network -- believes that the show is getting better. "It's
still evolving," he said. "We just have to find the right counterbalance for

Fortunately for MSNBC, two world events came along and
restored the network's confidence.

On March 24, NATO began bombing Kosovo. This sort of
dramatic news story is tailor-made for 24-hour news channels -- the Gulf War helped to
make CNN what it is today -- and MSNBC rose to the occasion.

From March 24 through April 19, the network averaged
228,000 viewers for the total day and 324,000 during primetime -- increases of 95 percent
and 93 percent, respectively, versus the previous three weeks.

FNC captured more viewers, too, but those gains were more
modest: It drew 124,000 for total day and 247,000 during primetime, increases of 33
percent and 13 percent.

Even if 20 percent is taken out of MSNBC's numbers because
of its extra subscribers, MSNBC still came out ahead. (Again, neither network approached
CNN, which drew 550,000 viewers for the total day and 912,000 in primetime.)

Then came the Columbine High School shootings, which
riveted the nation. From April 20 through 29, MSNBC averaged 320,000 viewers for total day
and 479,000 for primetime.

FNC set new records for itself April 20, averaging 361,000
viewers for the day, 884,000 for primetime and breaking the 1 million-home mark from 9
p.m. to 10 p.m., during Hannity & Colmes.

However, averaged over one week, FNC's numbers -- 183,000
for total day and 331,000 for primetime -- were impressive, but far behind those of MSNBC.

MSNBC has a bigger staff and more resources, and it can
capitalize on NBC's reputation as a topflight news organization.

"MSNBC can do a single subject wall-to-wall better
than Fox," Bjork said. "MSNBC, because of NBC News, may be considered

"If things are relatively quiet, FNC has established
some real personalities on its schedule, but when it gets into covering breaking news,
once again, there's a gap," Carroll added, pointing out that MSNBC "benefits
from NBC's resources and marquee names, who are part of any news event."


In addition to being able to call on Tom Brokaw, Stone
Phillips, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric and others for MSNBC, NBC has Brokaw and the Today and
Dateline NBC hosts to remind viewers to tune in to MSNBC for continuing coverage.
FNC, which lacks the national network-news presence, doesn't have the same cross-platform

Alshouse acknowledged that FNC was a younger operation with
less money to spend and fewer affiliates to rely on for breaking-news coverage. But she
said, "I understand the reasoning [about MSNBC's advantage], but I'm not sure it's
proven to be true."

She said people flip around, lingering with whichever
network has the "best pictures and best coverage" of a crisis any particular
moment. Therefore, it shouldn't take years to attract people to FNC's news coverage.

But Nass said that while channel surfers did indeed
discover FNC during the latest crises, building up the kind of credibility that makes
people tune to a network first would take several years -- unless FNC hired away some big
names from the broadcast networks.

No sensational story lasts forever, except for O.J.
Simpson. And when the public began losing interest in Littleton and Kosovo follow-ups,
MSNBC fell further and harder than FNC did.

Comparing the first week of the Kosovo bombings to the most
recent data at press time (May 5 through 11), MSNBC dropped 38 percent for total day and
43 percent in primetime, while FNC fell 26 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

As a result, the ratings race is once again extremely
tight, with MSNBC holding its lead in primetime due to its distribution advantage.

Looking ahead, both networks clearly face challenges.

Alshouse said Fox is not concerned about shaking its image
as a conservative network.

"We're not going to make the perception go away, so do
we worry about it? No. We just do the best job we can," she added.

But this means that in addition to proving itself on
breaking-news stories, FNC needs to show that its audience growth won't be limited by the
sense among viewers that it is television for the right. "It's hard to gauge right
now whether there will be a limit to their growth," Carroll said.

On the other hand, if the GOP presidential primaries heat
up, FNC is likely to get the better guests and, therefore, the better ratings.


Nass stressed that to capitalize on its programming
proficiency, "FNC has to put its energy into increasing its [subscribers]."

MSNBC, meanwhile, must find personalities like CNN's Larry
King who can make people tune in daily, Bjork said. "You need to be more than just
the spare tire in the trunk that people turn to in emergencies," she added.

Sorenson said this is precisely what his network is
striving for. "Personality-driven shows are hugely important," he said.

There are several such projects being developed, including
a biographical-oriented show being developed for Today's Matt Lauer. And Sorenson
remains open to reviving, with a new host, The Big Show -- the vehicle created for
Olbermann after MSNBC recruited him away from ESPN's SportsCenter.

Nass thinks the CNN analogy is an apt one. "They
should clone Larry King," he said, instead of hiring polarizing personalities like
North in an imitation of FNC. "Kiss it off: You can't be all things to all

But he thinks that MSNBC is "getting carried
away" by pinning high hopes on Matt Lauer for primetime, saying, "I don't think
he has as strong of a following as they think."

Carroll said Lauer brings credibility, but "only time
will tell" if those who sample the show because of his name recognition will come
back to it.

After all, he pointed out, Chevy Chase had a much easier
time getting sampling for his late-night talk show on the Fox broadcast network than Conan
O'Brien had on NBC, but O'Brien is laughing last.

And, Carroll pointed out, no one thought that a channel
discussing rain, sunshine and wind chill around the clock could develop a following, yet
people love The Weather Channel.

So ultimately, he said, whether one or both networks will
succeed is "impossible to figure out."

Stuart Miller

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.