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Columns
Big 3 of cable news compete in a niche market

Sunday, May 25, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The word "BRAND" -- on a black and white sign, in all capital letters -- is printed on a piece of paper that hangs outside a conference room at KDKA-TV, reminding all who pass to remember the importance of an image station executives want to convey.

With the proliferation of channels, cultivating a station or network image is often seen as a key element that will determine success or failure.

The influence of niche marketing is most apparent among entertainment cable networks. TNN recently announced it will change its name to Spike TV next month in an attempt to gain relevance to its young male target audience.

Among cable news networks, formulating a brand identity is a newer phenomenon. When CNN began in 1980, simply being an all-news channel was enough of a distinguishing feature. Even with the 1996 advent of MSNBC and Fox News Channel, CNN still ruled the cable news ratings roost.

But in the past two years, CNN's dominance has been thwarted by Fox, which proved its staying power during the war in Iraq, winning more viewers (an average of 3.4 million households per day) than CNN (2.7 million) or MSNBC (1.4 million).

These numbers remain a fraction of what the major networks' evening newscasts reach, even outside of war time. For the week ending May 2, "NBC Nightly News" was watched in 7.2 million households, "ABC World News Tonight" in 6.9 million and "CBS Evening News" in 5.5 million.

But the battle of the cable news networks has captured the attention of print media, especially now that Fox is the decisive leader, with CNN and MSNBC playing catch-up.

"In the last couple years, we've seen them really go for the brand identity niche," said Matthew Felling, media director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based research group Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Like soda, they've started tweaking the packaging. Instead of, 'Now with more NutraSweet,' it's, 'Now, with added patriotism!' "

CNN

For almost 20 years, CNN had the news niche to itself. But competition coupled with new management led the network to change its approach about two years ago.

CNN had home-grown star anchors (Bernard Shaw) and talk-show hosts (Larry King). But a new management team led by Jamie Kellner, who launched The WB, put a greater emphasis on ratings among young viewers and hired more marquee news stars.

Instead of news as the star, talent became more prominent, with the network making several strategic hires, including Connie Chung. She's gone now (so is Kellner), and CNN has retreated to its core values.

"I see CNN attempting to be your trusted source for news with a lower proportion of opinion than you'll get elsewhere," Felling said. "At Fox News, they're proudly opinionated when it comes to the news presentation. MSNBC feels like RC Cola in a Coke and Pepsi world."

Teya Ryan, CNN general manager and executive vice president, characterized CNN as an all-news network, "not a talk network, not an opinion network."

"Our identity is very clear. We do news," she said, "and we're the one network that has stayed fully committed to doing the news."

Jeffrey McCall, communications professor at DePauw University, doesn't entirely agree.

"If news was just carrying CNN, they wouldn't have spent so much time hashing and rehashing Laci Peterson," he said. "Except for the Northern California market, it's not news, it's weird drama."

Robert Bellamy, associate professor of communication at Duquesne University, said there's a simple reason no network, aside from a headline news service, can truly be all-news.

"There simply is not enough news for 24-hour coverage, and because there is not, that means the stories have to give way to style or, someone might even say, discourse," Bellamy said. And that leads to talking heads and talk shows.

Fox News Channel

Fox, with "The O'Reilly Factor," has had the most success in the talk-show ratings wars.

"We're seeing Fox in the lead in most prime-time spots, and Fox has a couple things it's done very, very well," Bellamy said. "The Fox name itself, as a brand in the U.S. and, I'm finding out, in much of Europe, does stand for an edgy kind of programming, whether in sports, news or whatever."

Fox News Channel's success is widely credited to chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who previously created America's Talking, an all-talk cable network that was the forerunner to MSNBC. Before that, Ailes worked as a media strategist for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush.

"The guy's a brilliant political strategist, but he also comes from a strong television background," Bellamy said. "He saw what he thought was a niche for people who are news junkies who felt coverage was biased."

Fox News Channel media relations vice president Robert Zimmerman did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Fox executives for this article.

"I call Fox 'Red, White and News,' " Felling said. "That's just the way they're selling their product and it just so happens, it's working especially well because we have a Republican-dominated political landscape. They both feed into each other."

It's impossible to mention the impact of Fox without bringing politics into the discussion. Fox launched the first salvo with its "Fair and Balanced" slogan, implying others are not.

"Fox plays off the charge, whether it's true or not -- and I'm not convinced it's true at all -- that much of the mainstream broadcast news has a liberal bias," said Matt McAllister, associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech.

That Fox has mostly conservative talk-show hosts isn't in question. But that ideology also creeps into news content, McAllister said, pointing out Fox's early label of the war in Iraq: "War on Terror."

"They implied a connection [between the war and] 9/11 and terrorist activity, and others were a bit more neutral."

DePauw's McCall said he doesn't think Fox is as conservative or CNN as liberal as some might perceive.

"People in the field, their reporters as opposed to personalities, are trying to do [unbiased] reporting," McCall said. "The trappings and surroundings and promotions and idle chit chat between a host and personalities tends to be more patriotic and cheerleading, but you can't blame that on [reporters in the field]."

McAllister said Fox's willingness to tinker with the long-held premise of journalistic objectivity could revolutionize the news business.

"Before the war [in Iraq], when I talked to people who leaned left, they said, 'Oh, well, this will show how ridiculous Fox News is, they're so unabashedly pro-administration and pro-Bush.' I didn't think so," McAllister said. "In wartime, patriotism rises to the surface. Here was a news organization whose fairly explicit ideological stance plugs right into that and they got increased ratings. The lesson is not going to be lost on the other news channels.

"Ultimately, television news does not have a liberal bias, it has a ratings bias. What can get us ratings? If they see a competitor that is successful and slightly more pro-administration, they're going to look at that and say, 'Maybe we're going to do some of that too.'"

CNN's Ryan said that no matter how well that tactic works for Fox, CNN won't follow suit.

"We're an objective news network," she said. "This is a place for serious journalism, and that's the direction we're going in."

Because it was founded by noted liberal Ted Turner, in the minds of some, CNN has always had a left-leaning slant. But would a liberal network draw viewers? "Donahue" didn't do much for MSNBC, and DePauw's McCall said there's a reason for that.

"The demographic that's left-leaning probably doesn't rely on TV news as much as those in the right wing," McCall said. "They're more likely to read The Nation or The New York Times and be less likely to be wrapped up in watching TV."

Duquesne's Bellamy said a liberal counterpoint to Fox wouldn't draw a crowd.

"At this point in history, even an attempt to do that would be a failure because the issues now are between the right and maybe the middle," he said. "Alternative viewpoints are not viable as commercial media."

MSNBC

NBC's cable news outlet has reinvented itself several times, most recently abandoning its "America's News Channel" slogan for "NBC News on Cable 24/7."

Mark Effron, vice president of live news programming at MSNBC, said the NBC family lineage makes his network distinctive. He points to "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," the only broadcast network evening news program to see its ratings rise during the Iraq war (CBS and ABC lost ground).

"It's clear now we know who we are and we know what we're about," Effron said. Some TV news observers don't yet agree with that assessment.

"I don't know what they're doing because I don't think they know what they're doing," said Philip Seib, Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University.

Duquesne's Bellamy said MSNBC wants to be a combination of CNN and Fox, offering primarily news during the day and opinionated talk shows at night.

"MSNBC is the middle child of cable news," Felling said. "The older brother is trustworthy and the younger sibling is extremely popular and they're trying to figure out which way to go. They are trying to become more like Fox. Hiring Jesse Ventura is a step in that direction."

With the addition of shows starring libertarian Ventura and conservative Joe Scarborough, some have argued that MSNBC is following Fox's ideological bent. If nothing else, MSNBC is tweaking its prime-time lineup rhetorically with hosts that bring a higher level of bombast, similar to Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

"If you look at what we have in prime time, it's not right, it's not left, it's a real diversity of opinion," MSNBC's Effron said, calling Chris Matthews an iconoclast who once worked for Democratic Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. "MSNBC is more about what America is. We're not all the way left, not all the way right. ... We're in the mainstream."

If that proves to be the case in the months ahead as Ventura's show debuts, Seib said it might prove a wise place to be.

"Anyone who goes too far left or too far right could find themselves isolated from the mainstream, where I think the bulk of the news audience is."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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