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Viewer asks "Where is FOX News?"

Reported by Chrish - September 26, 2006 -

We get all kinds of emails here: lots of thanks and kudoes, condolences and sympathies, and profane and often illiterate hate mail. This one was a plaintive cry if ever I've heard one:

"I have been watching fox news for 10 years now and I have just realized that there is no fox news. There are all sorts of ‘analysis’ programs but, no fox news. How can they advertise ‘fair and balanced’ when there is no fox news. I watch it for many hours, every day (weekends included) and there is no fox news.

How can this be and how is it that no one has pointed this out?????"

It occurs to me that the writer, C.S. from New London NH, is one of FOX's viewers who turn the TV on and leave it humming in the background all day; for company, or just in case something exciting happens, or for the rare, can't wait, hard news event. His testimony (and awakening - yay!) bears out Steve Rendall's report in FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) several years ago, when FOX began crowing about its supposedly superior ratings:


"'Fox Tops CNN as Choice for Cable News," declared one typical headline (Chicago Tribune , 3/24/03). "Fox News Channel Continues to Crush CNN ," reported Knight Ridder (Dallas Morning News , 2/3/04) in a column comparing the rivalry to a party primary: "Fox News Channel is winning the Nielsen caucuses." Last summer (8/17/03), the New York Times Magazine declared, looking back at the period of the Iraq invasion, "Fox was--and still is--trouncing CNN in the ratings.'

After exposure to countless similar stories published since January 2002, when Fox was reported to have surpassed CNN in the Nielsen ratings, one might naturally conclude that Fox has more viewers than CNN .

But it's not true. On any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox .

So what are the media reports talking about? With few exceptions, stories about the media business report a single number for ratings (often expressed two different ways--as "points" or "share"). This number is often presented as if it were the result of a popularity contest or a democratic vote. But it is actually the average number of viewers watching a station or a show in a typical minute, based on Nielsen Media Research's monitoring of thousands of households.

The average is arrived at by counting viewers every minute. Heavy viewers--those who tune in to a station and linger there--have a greater impact, as they can be counted multiple times as they watch throughout the day.

When an outlet reports that CNN is trailing Fox , they are almost invariably using this average tally, which Fox has been winning for the past two years. For the year 2003, Nielsen's average daily ratings show Fox beating CNN 1.02 million viewers to 665,000.

But there is another important number collected by Nielsen (though only made available to the firm's clients) that tells another story. This is the "cume," the cumulative total number of viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes during a given day. Unlike the average ratings number the media usually report, this number gives the same weight to the light viewer, who tunes in for a brief time, as it does to the heavy viewer.

How can CNN have more total viewers when Fox has such a commanding lead in average viewers? Conventional industry wisdom is that CNN viewers tune in briefly to catch up on news and headlines, while Fox viewers watch longer for the opinion and personality-driven programming. Because the smaller total number of Fox viewers are watching more hours, they show up in the ratings as a higher average number of viewers.

CNN regularly claims a cume about 20 percent higher than Fox 's (Deseret Morning News , 1/12/04). For instance, in April 2003, during the height of the fighting in Iraq, CNN 's cume was significantly higher than Fox 's: 105 million viewers tuned into CNN compared to 86 million for Fox (Cablefax , 4/30/03). But in the same period, the ratings reported by most media outlets had Fox in the lead, with an average of 3.5 million viewers to CNN 's 2.2 million.

Even among Fox 's core audience of conservatives, CNN has an edge in total viewership. A study by the ad agency Carat USA (Hollywood Reporter , 8/13/03) found that 37 percent of viewers calling themselves "very conservative" watch CNN in the course of a week, while only 32 percent tune to Fox ."

Keep this manipulation in mind next time someone C&Ps FOX's ratings for the week as a "comment". Numbers don't lie, people posting numbers do.

Thanks for writing, C.S.!