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Cable news ratings bring out the inner blowhard in Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann

March 31, 2009 |  5:34 pm

Are you tired of hearing the cable news blowhards toot their own horns? Were you expecting that after the November election, the networks would stop obsessing over endless ratings spin and maybe encourage the hosts -- who are, after all, supposed to be discussing issues of national import -- to do something besides beat their own chests?

Well, good luck with that.

The latest batch of quarterly and monthly cable news numbers is out, and that has prompted another frenzied round of spinning from the news networks. Fox News delivered a news release celebrating Bill O'Reilly's 100th consecutive month -- dating to 2000 -- as the No. 1 cable news show at 8 p.m. To mark the occasion, O'Reilly gave an interview with a trade magazine in which he declared, "We had our people research all programs going back to the’ 50s, like 'Gunsmoke' and things like that. Nobody’s ever stayed on top this long."

This in turn earned a caustic reaction Monday night from MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, a frequent O'Reilly scourge, who noted that NBC's "Today" and "Meet the Press" have been No. 1 in their time slots for far longer than "The O'Reilly Factor." "The old man is getting sloppy," Olbermann told his viewers. (He left out that the "old man" beats Olbermann by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 in total viewers.)

It's nearly always a bad idea to look for TV hosts for candid, well-informed assessments of their own ratings performance. But a quick look at the numbers from Nielsen Media Research does yield important insights into the cable-news race.

First, despite the predictions (hopes?) of some analysts, Fox News' supposed Obama-age meltdown has not occurred. In fact, since the Democratic administration has entered office, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network looks as dominant as ever. During prime time, where the most valuable advertising is sold, Fox News averaged more viewers through the first quarter (2.3 million) than CNN (1.1 million) and MSNBC (957,000) combined.

In a sense, this is not surprising, with hosts such as O'Reilly and Sean Hannity serving up relentless nightly criticism of the Obama administration to Fox News' remarkably loyal fan base.
Fox News is therefore up 25% in prime time compared to the first quarter of 2008, while CNN -- which has tried to stick to a newsier format at night -- has slipped 10%.

But CNN nevertheless scored the most-watched basic cable show during the entire January-March period with its coverage of the Obama inauguration, including the speech, watched by 8.8 million viewers. So people still stick with CNN during big news events. As ever, the problem for CNN is how to hang on to those viewers when big news doesn't happen. (For its part, CNN bragged about having the best first quarter in six years when looking at the total-day programming, but that was heavily skewed by the inaugural hoopla.)

Meanwhile, MSBNC is up 23% compared with first-quarter 2008, thanks in part to a big time slot improvement for the new liberal talk darling, Rachel Maddow. But this strategy is not without risks: Maddow's numbers have cooled recently, and March was her lowest-rated month.

In general, though, the most recent numbers seem to suggest that viewers still gravitate toward highly partisan opinion in prime time, no matter who is in the White House. And the republic may survive, as long as viewers don't believe what the hosts say about their viewership.

-- Scott Collins