Cable News Ratings Jump During Hurricane Coverage, But Ad Sales Yet to Follow

Good ratings happen to news networks when things get bad.

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC posted big double-digit gains from their Hurricane Katrina coverage. CNN had the biggest increase -- up 39% in total day average viewership. Fox News was up 31%; MSNBC was up 11%.

Most big events, such as a terrorist attack, can't offer up any buildup of news coverage. But Katrina, and subsequently Hurricane Rita, allowed networks to offer hours of public service leading up to the event. Ratings scored before and after.

Mixing commerce with public service on news programs is always a tricky scenario. News networks can typically skip commercials to offer continuous coverage - as in the case last week of the JetBlue plane that landed at LAX with a crooked front landing wheel. Yet unlike big-rated entertainment shows, news networks can't sell big-rated content in advance -- except perhaps in the case of events like Presidential elections.



However, a news network, for its public service, for its good journalistic skills, and for its strong opinions (Fox News, hello) can accrue good favor with advertisers.

Fox News will be looking for that advantage. While the network remains an easy number-one in viewership to CNN -- 2.3 million average viewers for Fox News in prime time to 1.1 million for CNN -- Fox is still far behind CNN when it comes to annual advertising sales.

In 2003, for example, CNN posted $424 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence. MSNBC was next at $162 million. Then came Fox News, with $112 million. In the last two years, those numbers have increased for all networks. Fox News made some gains, but it still trails CNN.

Unlike broadcast networks' prime-time sales -- where advertisers shift massive amounts of money from network to network, depending on who is up or down that year -- ad sales among cable news networks shift far less year to year.

The news -- the content -- is pretty much the same everywhere, even including hyped news content from those crazy, verbose guys on Fox News. If the cable news marketplace commands a 2 percent to 3 percent gain in cost-per-thousand viewer price increases during the annual upfront selling period, that's pretty much the price range all cable networks can be expected to secure.

For good viewership gains, Fox News would command the top end of the price increase range. Despite what viewers may surmise, it has nothing to do with Fox News' alleged right-wing politics. It really doesn't matter if its opinions are those of the Libertarians, Liberals or Whigs.

No matter what the political spin, cable news money generally stays straight and true.

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