How Fox News defies ratings gravity

Forget about political winds and social trends. The dominance of Fox News in the cable ratings race has lasted through wartime and peacetime, boom and recession, Republican and Democrat. It's not a product of circumstance -- it's a law of nature: irresistible, irreducible and seemingly immutable.

In the just-ended May ratings period, Fox once again manhandled the competition, posting big gains in both primetime and full-day while MSNBC stumbled and CNN plunged headlong. Fox's primetime audience in the demographic of adults 25-to-54 (the ratings group that ad buys are based on) was up 30 percent versus May 2008; MSNBC's was down 9 percent, while CNN, which seems increasingly out of step with the cable news audience, tumbled a vertiginous 37 percent.
All three networks, to be sure, are down from their levels at the beginning of the year, when the excitement of the Inauguration drove boffo viewership. But as the pie has shrunk, only Fox has managed to grab a bigger slice.

It's tempting to ascribe Fox's surge to the change in administration. There's something to this. Political media outlets, whether print, web or broadcast, tend to flourish in opposition. Certainly that was the case with MSNBC, which rode the crests of Obamamania to new highs last fall, only to settle to earth once campaigning gave way to governing. Even the network's powerhouse, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, was down in May (a 20 percent drop among viewers 25-54), the first time that's happened in almost three years.

But Fox has never fit comfortably into this mold. When George Bush took office, analysts and competitors predicted Fox would fizzle without Bill Clinton to beat up on. Instead, it merely opened up an ever-growing lead on CNN. Just a few months ago, the chin-strokers were thinking that maybe it was actually Bush and his War on Terror that had been propping up Fox and that the dawn of the Obama era would prove Fox's undoing. That's clearly not happening.

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