Fox offers glitz and gab in war coverage
Pete Schulberg/On Television
We know who won the war. But who won the war over the war?
The Iraqi conflict gave American viewers clear, distinct choices in coverage and style. And while CNN seemed to win most of the battles, Fox News Channel undoubtedly will claim the ultimate victory. So don't be surprised if Fox's competitors get busy with their own reconstruction. Tearing down the statue of Rupert Murdoch will just have to wait.
In terms of total viewers both before and during the war, Fox pulled in the biggest numbers Ñ an average of 3.2 million viewers per night, followed by CNN (2.7 million) and the lagging MSNBC (1.4 million). But you can bet that CNN will be telling everybody this side of Wolf Blitzer that it was the network showing the biggest boost in viewership once the war began. CNN's audience grew by more than 300 percent, while Fox's increased 200 percent.
It's easy to see why. CNN's large and seasoned cadre of correspondents Ñ from Blitzer to Christiane Amanpour to the embedded Walter Rogers to Barbara Starr Ñ prove daily they're a cut above the competition. Fox and MSNBC ooze style and glitz. CNN puts its money and its muscle into plain old reporting and perspective.
Up until about a year ago, and certainly during the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago, viewers gravitated to the news channel that Ted Turner built whenever major news broke out. That's all changed now that the frantically paced, graphics-laden Fox News Channel has found a comfortable constituency with the GOP crowd.
And that constituency didn't budge during the war, which probably means that CNN and MSNBC have no choice when it comes to trying to carve out a larger base. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, MSNBC's parent company, was quoted recently as saying that the channel should go out and hire dancing clowns if they'll bring in better ratings. Was Geraldo listening?
In fact, MSNBC has become noticeably Fox-like lately, complete with ultra-energetic anchors and hosts. (Newcomer Joe Scarborough is clearly gearing up to challenge Chris Matthews for the 'Shrillest Voice on TV' title). They've also added fast-talking reporters and studio sets that look as if they were hijacked from Cher's concert tour.
But MSNBC still suffers from a lineup heavy with too many nondescript interview shows. 'Buchanan and Press' and Keith Olberman's new nighttime program are good examples. Worse, the network has no real stars.
Of course, CNN tried going the star route, nabbing the now-departed Connie Chung, Paula Zahn from Fox and the sleepy Aaron Brown from ABC. But Brown and Zahn often seem uncomfortable onscreen, as do Judy Woodruff and other CNN anchors.
While CNN styles itself as 'the most trusted name in news,' Fox is unquestionably the most patriotic. That's why you see the American flag waving in the upper left corner of your screen. Fox knows who its audience is and understands that viewers' loyalty stems from the politically conservative face the network puts on its coverage and presentation.
And in marked contrast to CNN's tepid hosts, Fox features take-charge anchors such as Shepard Smith ('Shep,' as he is called by his on-air colleagues) who come off as though they were born in front of a camera. After the war, CNN ought to consider putting on Blitzer as their main guy.
Meanwhile, CNN's 'Larry King Live' has seemed especially out of the loop, with King asking the simplest questions this side of the Teletubbies. Nearing 70, King has been no competition for Fox's over-opinionated Bill O'Reilly.
And what's become of old standbys at ABC, CBS and NBC? The one-time Big Three now seem content with taking a back seat in the 24-hour news environment. The nightly newscasts on the major networks still command the biggest news audiences Ñ tripling and quadrupling that of the cable networks. But during the war, 'NBC Nightly News' viewership has been pretty much the same as ever, while ABC and CBS have had fewer folks tuning in than before the fighting started.
It's easy to figure out where the audiences went. It's remarkable to see the old networks behave so passively in the face of competition.
And that means it's going to tougher for them to win viewers back. Just don't send in the clowns.