The cable news wars are over. Fox News Channel has won. And so, too, has CNN.
That's not the way it looks from the outside, of course. To judge from the press coverage, to read the networks' own corporate cross talk, Fox and CNN are still engaged in slow-motion combat. They are portrayed, and sometimes portray themselves, like the dailies of 1920s Chicago, embattled and battling. CNN snatches Paula Zahn from Fox News; Fox counters by spiriting Greta Van Susteren away from CNN. One side starts running an onscreen crawl, and the other quickly copies the move-and then both squabble over which was first. On more substantive issues, such as scoops and the other guy's alleged ideological bias, the sniping remains constant.
Fox crows that it is winning, and winning decisively, in the court of public opinion: the Nielsen ratings. CNN, with a 16-year head start, invented and defined the 24-hour news genre, establishing many journalistic milestones before Fox and MSNBC arrived in late 1996. But Fox News, the brash brainchild of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, has blown past its senior rival with astonishing speed. Fox's average daily audience first surpassed CNN's in January 2002. Last year, it captured an average of 667,000 viewers a day to CNN'S 536,000 (MSNBC is a struggling third with 266,000). And absent a war or a dramatic, and unlikely, overhaul of its programming, CNN will probably remain No. 2 in viewers for years. Fox likes to point out that it got to be No. 1 despite CNN's enormous distribution advantage (Fox still reaches about 4.5 million fewer cable and satellite TV homes than CNN).
So the game's almost over?
In fact, with each passing month, Fox and CNN seem not to be in the same game at all. Both cover news, offer opinions and provide analysis of daily events. But they've become so different, in tone and style and emphasis-let's not even start on political orientation-that they've almost become separate solar systems within the same galaxy. Increasingly, the compare-and-contrast exercise isn't just misleading, it's irrelevant.
A study of the two networks by ADT Research, a New York firm that monitors TV newscasts, put it succinctly last year: "Cable news networks appeal to two distinct audiences: highly ideological so-called news junkies whose daily entertainment derives from the overheated debates of the political class; and a less-committed group who rely on experienced newsgathering when a global crisis hits the headlines. CNN's operation is designed as a resource for the latter; FNC's for the former."
The difference between CNN and Fox is less about news and journalism, or even politics, than about marketing. When Ailes, a former Republican political operative, started Fox News, he never contemplated a frontal assault on CNN, despite some feisty slogans ("Fair and Balanced," "We Report. You Decide") and cheeky newspaper ads. With a small, inexperienced staff and virtually no foreign presence, there was no practical way for Fox News to beat CNN on the depth and quality of its news reporting....
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