Not long ago, CNN liked to brag that its ratings always surged past Fox when there was breaking news, particularly a big story overseas. Viewers had grown accustomed to switching to the original cable news channel for breaking news, and with CNN's global reach, they were (supposedly) better qualified to cover international events.
My, how times have changed. Whatever advantage CNN once had in breaking news has long since evaporated. According to Deadline Hollywood, Fox News Channel hit a ratings high for this year, with last night's coverage of the miner rescue in Chile:
Some 7.1 million viewers tuned into Fox News at 8 PM last night to watch the last trapped Chilean miner, Luis Urzua, making it safely to the surface. That was not only the cable news channel's largest audience in the hour this year but its biggest viewership since Election Night 2008. It more than doubled what the channel's flagship series, The O'Reilly Factor, averages at 8 PM. Fox News not only pummeled its entire cable competition, it also beat broadcast networks NBC and Fox in the 8 PM hour. CNN also got a boost with its rescue coverage vs. the miniscule ratings it has been getting in the 8 PM slot with new talkshow Parker Spitzer. The network averaged 2.7 million viewers. That was almost 10 times what the show hosted by former New York Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer and political columnist Kathleen Parker most recently logged at 8 PM but trailed Fox News by a wide margin in the area CNN used to dominate - breaking news. MSNBC (1.1 million) was on par with what Keith Olbermann normally delivers in the 8 PM hour. Overall, Fox News' primetime average last night was 4.9 million viewers, followed by CNN (2.4 million) and MSNBC (920,000).
The website's TV editor, Nellie Andreeva, notes that Fox benefited from miscues by their competition. MSNBC apparently decided that its program "Rallying the Democratic Base"...oops, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" was a better fit for the time slot, a decision that produced paltry ratings. Over at CNN, they allowed their new team of Kathleen Parker and Elliot Spitzer handle the coverage, and both were clearly over their heads.
Still, the mine rescue was almost a miracle for CNN. Those 2.7 million viewers tuned to the network represented CNN's largest 8 pm audience in months. And, through a little scheduling trick, those numbers will be assigned to Parker/Spitzer, which has struggled mightily in the ratings. Factoring in one night of huge numbers will improve Parker/Spitzer's overall ratings (a bit) and help stave off cancellation for a few more weeks.
But the tide has clearly turned in cable news. CNN's reshuffled executive team can no longer hope for a slate of breaking news stories or an international crisis to boost ratings. Breaking news is now dominated by Fox, the outlet that was given no chance for success when it made its debut 14 years ago.
It will be interesting to see how many viewers Fox will attract on election night. We'll go out on a limb and predict that FNC will not only thrash its cable rivals, but also attract more viewers than at least one of the broadcast networks (most likely CBS). We'll see how accurate our prediction is in less than three weeks.