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O'Reilly overstates Clinton interview's reach and importance

Reported by Chrish - May 6, 2008 -

Bill O'Reilly is still bragging about and exaggerating the importance of his interview last week with Senator Hillary Clinton. As we expected, he and FOX News are using the interview to prove to viewers that they really are a legitimate news organization. Not content with very high viewership (especially the first night) O'Reilly found a way to manipulate the numbers to make them really , really impressive - right up there with Oprah's "Big Give" Finale.
With video.

He asserted in his Talking Points Memo that an audience of ten million watched his "chat" with MS. Clinton - over two nights, in the 8:00 and 11:00 broadcasts - and tens of millions more saw it on "the 'net" or heard it on the radio. This just speaks to "the power of the FOX News Channel," and the interview was a "smash."

TVNewser confirms that total number (with 3.6 and 1.6 million at 8 and 11, respectively, April 30, and 3.2 and 1.2 May 1). But it is reasonable to assume that the people watching Wednesday at 8 also watched Thursday night and should not be counted as unique viewers, i.e., shouldn't be counted twice. Also, given O'Reilly's demographics (they're largely seniors) and what we know about FOX viewers (like Charlie, they don't surf), the viewers at 11:00 have fallen asleep with the tube on for company.

One must also keep in mind how these ratings are derived. FAIR.org asserts "On any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox ." They explain

"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."

"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. "

Of course, this only matters to two groups of people. FAIR continues

"Journalists who publish Nielsen numbers ought to explain that the data are not simply measures of popularity, and they are not produced as a service to journalists or the public. The figures are gathered to provide advertisers with complex data about viewer habits. It pays to remember that neither cable news stations nor Nielsen Media Research are primarily in the business of serving the public interest--both are in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers."

Besides advertisers, these numbers matter to people who are trying to convince their viewers that they are in larger company than they really are, reinforcing their opinions as more widely held than they really are. This feeds the "might makes right" mentality that goes with the right-wing's foreign policy objectives.

O'Reilly claimed that Hillary-haters wanted him to humiliate Clinton and pursue "culture war" issues, and on the nutty left only "elements at NBC News" (his code for Keith Olbermann) were critical so he knows he did a good job. He cited, with much scorn, MSNBC's rankings for last month and boasted that FNC was tied with ESPN in the ratings... but he fudged those numbers too. Not by much, but it just goes to show you can't trust anything he says - good isn't good enough and bad isn't bad enough. As he cited these figures the text onscreen read "...with its dismal ratings, it's hard to take MSNBC seriously."

O'Reilly and FOX want their viewers to believe that ratings are an indicator of high quality, which is false. Indeed, it appears, in our society, that the opposite holds true. Compare how many people watch American Idol with how many watch Masterpiece Theater, or how many eat at McDonalds versus how many opt for local vegetarian restaurants to see that crap is very popular in America.

O'Reilly predicts that his interview with John McCain will be just as "tough," and noted that Barack Obama told Steve Doocy this morning that he'll see if he can fit O'Reilly's program in.

"Talking Points" is very pleased that "MoveOn and its ilk" are angry over Clinton's appearance, because as he frames it MoveOn has "threatened" the candidates if they appear on FOX. He patted himself on the back for not bringing up Clinton's appearance at YearlyKos, which indicates that he knows it's a bogus non-issue that she would have slapped down as partisan hackery.

Yup, O'Reilly is going to toot this horn from here until November. "Your humble correspondent," he calls himself - puhleeeze.