What's the No. 1 brand in cable news? That depends, in part, on how many screens you're counting.
With the second-quarter drawing to a close, Fox News Channel is running up the score on the competition, posting its highest ratings ever and boasting of an evening audience equal to those of CNN, MSNBC and Headline News combined.
But that's only looking at TV. And that's something CNN -- which had its best second quarter since 2003 in total viewers, but fell to third place in primetime in the crucial 25-to-54 demographic -- says it's not doing anymore now that so much news is being consumed on computers and mobile devices.
"We used to be a television business," says Jack Wakshlag, head of research for Turner Broadcasting. "We see our future in terms of being a multi-platform media company. Now we need a metric that will measure our power or our presence across the different platforms."
As it happens, Nielsen, the ratings firm, recently started tracking such a metric. It's called Nielsen Fusion, and it combines viewership and online usage data. The Fusion rankings for April show CNN with a commanding lead over both MSNBC and Fox News when it comes to reach among all viewers. (That's looking at the full day, not just primetime.) CNN (which is part of the same media conglomerate as Daily Finance parent AOL) reached 125.3 million people in April, versus 105.5 milllion for MSNBC and 104.3 million for Fox.
That's not really a surprise. CNN has always beaten Fox and MSNBC in reach, or cumulative audience. (Fox and MSNBC counter that advertisers make their buys based on ratings, not cumulative reach, which doesn't reflect duration of viewership.) And CNN and MSNBC both have a big head start on Fox when it comes to web traffic; the Fox News Digital Network attracts fewer than half the unique visitors of the MSNBC or CNN digital networks (No. 1 and 3 among all news sites, respectively).
But as viewers increasingly migrate their news consumption from televisions to other types of screens, total cross-platform viewership is only going to get more important, says Wakshlag. He notes that 20 million viewers get news from both CNN television and a CNN website in the same month, versus only 9 million who do the same with Fox. "For some reason, they don't have a lot of what we're calling 'integrators,' and we're seeing that as something that really says something about the strength of the brand," he says.
Fox, of course, views CNN's emphasis on a newfangled measurement as a mark of its failure to secure the old-fashioned ratings advertisers care about. "Apparently the sheer embarrassment of getting beat by both Headline News and MSNBC along with the continued implosion of Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper has led CNN to its latest act of desperation," says a Fox News spokesman. "We wish Jack well in continuing to defend their battle for fourth place."
I've offered my thoughts on how Fox's dominance seems to continue irrespective of political or social trends. Michael Wolff has some further ideas on the subject: He thinks the ratings surge Fox has experienced over the last few months proves that viewers are coming to it for entertainment, not politics.
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