Fox, which went on the air Oct. 7, 1996, beat a network that had a virtual monopoly in cable news for 15 years, despite the fact that Fox is available in fewer homes.
Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes said the victory was a tribute to Rupert Murdoch of parent company News Corp., who started Fox at the same time that NBC and Microsoft launched MSNBC, and when ABC was also contemplating a cable news channel.
"He said that there's room and we can win, and nobody believed him," Ailes said.
Cable news viewership in general is up over last year at this time. CNN, Fox and MSNBC have held on to at least some of the audience that tuned in after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Fox's growth is not at CNN's expense," said CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson.
During January, Fox averaged 656,000 viewers while CNN had 596,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC had 296,000 viewers. In Nielsen's cable measurements, a month ends on its last Sunday.
In prime-time, Fox averaged 1.1 million viewers, CNN was at 921,000 and MSNBC had 358,000. Fox beat CNN during two months last year in prime-time, but by smaller margins. And it has never won in Nielsen's 24-hour average.
Fox's prime-time talk lineup, led by Bill O'Reilly, has been the biggest factor in its success. CNN has contended that Fox has an audience with a dedication akin to those who listen to conservative talk radio.
Ailes bristles at the notion of Fox being typecast as conservative, noting its recent hire of Geraldo Rivera as a war correspondent.
"The TV industry in New York believes that if a conservative gets to give his point of view on television, that's bias," he said. "We believe that if anybody's point of view is eliminated, that's biased, including conservatives."
CNN is available in just under 86 million of the nation's 105.5 million television homes, and Fox in 77 million.
But Fox has seen dramatic distribution growth over the past year, increasing the number of homes where it is available by one third. CNN's January audience was 51 percent higher than it was in January 2001, while Fox's audience more than doubled.
The two networks have been engaged in increasingly bitter talent wars, with CNN raiding Fox last fall to sign morning-show host Paula Zahn and Fox retaliating by poaching CNN's Greta Van Susteren. CNN announced last week it had signed ABC's Connie Chung to be host of a prime-time show.
Clearly, Robinson said, "Fox and CNN do different things. If you watch CNN, we have a full day of smart, hard newscasts that cover the world and break news daily."
She pointed out that CNN had a correspondent in Nigeria on Tuesday covering the deadly explosion of a munitions dump. Fox had no correspondent in Nigeria.
Ailes said Fox benefited from a lack of focus at MSNBC in establishing itself over the past five years. As for CNN, he said the network is modeling itself after a broadcast news operation and it's too soon to tell whether new leader Walter Isaacson will be successful.
"This is going to be a pitched battle for first place," he said.
Despite the bitter competition, the cable news audience is dwarfed by that of broadcast nightly news. For instance, NBC's "Nightly News" averaged 11.5 million viewers each weeknight last week.
- The Associated Press