In December, MSNBC and CNN routed Fox News. Of course, MSNBC and CNN had spent recent months fiercely tussling for the top slot, but in December MSNBC nosed ahead to finish first. The Fox News Channel limped to a distant third-place finish, its audience roughly one-third the size of its competitors'.
Did we say we were talking about TV ratings? We are not. All these data reflect U.S. traffic at the channels' Web sites, as tallied by Nielsen//NetRating. They also reflect a complete inversion of how the cable networks perform on their home medium. (MSNBC's daily TV audience sometimes fits comfortably inside two large college football stadiums.) Could this signify that Fox News' style is less translatable to the unbridled Web than that of its straighter competitors?
The well-known rivalry between Fox News and CNN invites all manner of metaphors: red state vs. blue state, hot medium vs. cool medium, partisan tabloid vs. sober-minded broadsheet. News Corp.'s (NWS ) Fox News was launched in 1996 with a sharply conceived programming product that seemed specifically designed to tie its opponent in knots. For Time Warner's (TWX ) CNN to respond in kind would mean forsaking its serious-news DNA. But ignoring the challenger and focusing on its established bona fides left a market opening that Fox could fly a 747 through. Which it has. In early 2002, Fox overtook CNN as the cable-news ratings king, and it has not relinquished that position. (Fox's corporate sibling, The New York Post, employs a similar strategy against the Daily News, though thus far not to the same effect.) In January, the audience for Fox News' best-watched show, The O'Reilly Factor, was more than twice that of CNN's best-watched Larry King Live.
IN A PREVIOUS MEDIA ERA this would be the narrative's end, but we're not in that era. The day when the Web overtakes traditional media -- when a medium's online fare generates more revenue than its original format -- is years off, but big players may be glimpsing its outline in the distance. This, along with the pasting CNN continues to take from partisans on the left and right, is probably why its executives were practically giddy when told about this column. It's true that CNN.com's traffic slipped below that of MSNBC.com for several months last year, but another stat bolsters CNN's online strength. People spend more time, on average, at CNN.com than at either FoxNews.com or MSNBC.com. (Time spent on a Web site, unfortunately called "stickiness," is another key data point that media buyers weigh when making advertising decisions.)
There are many reasons Web traffic numbers sharply diverge from TV ratings. The Web may be all about splintering media models, but, especially for MSNBC.com, its portals still matter. Nielsen//Net Rating finds MSN.com responsible for a large chunk of MSNBC.com's traffic. In contrast, AOL drives only a fraction as much to CNN.com. Fox News has no such portal relationship. (Wonder why Rupert Murdoch has made noises about creating a next-generation portal?)
In fairness (and balance), Fox started later. CNN was launched in 1980, and it has been on the Web since 1996. "They just got way out ahead. Now we're climbing the ladder," says Bert Solivan, general manager of FoxNews.com. But MSNBC was also launched in 1996, which, portal relationship or no, didn't stop MSNBC.com from racking up impressive numbers. Even at current rates of growth, FoxNews.com has years to go before it will unseat either rival.
FoxNews.com's growth last year suggests untapped potential, but CNN.com's audience and stickiness signify some things as well. News may be commoditizing online, but those in the top tier still outdo their flashier competitors. (Compare the traffic of nytimes.com to other newspaper sites.) In news, the serious still counts for something. And for all the thinking that Web mojo is driven by sharp, partisan commentary, well, it hasn't yet helped FoxNews.com close the gap with CNN.com. Passions may run hot on the Web, but evidently there's still a place for medium cool.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
By Jon Fine