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Fox News and MSNBC enjoy ratings gains, but CNN drops

February 24, 2009 | 12:55 pm

With gloomy economic news dominating the headlines, Fox News and MSNBC posted substantial audience increases in the last four weeks compared to the same period last year, while CNN shed a large share of its audience.

Top-rated Fox News drew an average of 2.4 million viewers in prime time between Jan. 26 and Feb. 22, a spike of 28%, according to Nielsen Media Research data. CNN held onto second place with 1.2 million viewers but dropped 30% from last February, while MSNBC posted an average of 949,000 viewers, up 23%.

Part of CNN’s audience fall-off can be traced to the three presidential primary debates the network hosted last February, including one that drew 8.3 million viewers, greatly boosting its average rating for the month. But CNN also saw a drop-off for some of its signature shows in the last four weeks, underscoring the network’s challenge in sustaining the big numbers it scored during the 2008 election. “Anderson Cooper 360” lost 9% of its viewers compared to last February, while “Lou Dobbs Tonight” was off by 15%.

Meanwhile, its rivals enjoyed gains in the last month. Fox News host Glenn Beck’s new afternoon program doubled the viewership for the time period compared to last February. Bret Baier, who succeeded Brit Hume as the host of “Special Report” this year, has seen his show’s audience increase by 38%. And "Hannity," no long co-hosted by Alan Colmes, was up 38%.

For its part, MNSBC posted its best February in history. “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” was up 32%, while “The Rachel Maddow Show” brought in 134% more viewers than the time period had last year.

Still, Fox News programs dominated the ranking of the top 10 cable news shows, locking up every slot except seventh place, which was held by CNN’s “Larry King Live,” which gained 19% this month.

-- Matea Gold