The front page of Saturday's Arts section featured Jacques Steinberg's "Fox News Finds Its Rivals Closing In." The Times adores these "rivals closing in on Fox News" stories, constantly checking for signs that the reign of right-wing news is over and that CNN and MSNBC, whose liberal leanings are neverconfessed,have overtaken Fox among this or that particular viewer segment. The only problem is, those cable rivals never quite seem to get there.
When prime-time cable news ratings for the second quarter of 2008 are officially released next week, they will show that Fox News reclaimed the top spot among viewers in their mid-20s through mid-50s, those of greatest interest to news advertisers, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.
During the first three months of the year, by contrast, CNN drew so many viewers on big Democratic primary nights and for several presidential debates that it vaulted over Fox News for the first time in six years.
Indeed, back in March the Times celebrated that CNN victory in a specific age segment with a front-page Business section story. The paperhas done similarly themed stories on the liberal cable channel MSNBC (featuring liberal Chris Matthews and foaming Bush-hater Keith Olbermann) making gains (but just gains)after the Republicans lost both houses of Congress.
Maybe one day CNN or MSNBC will actually pass Fox News. Imagine how the Times will play that story up!
Steinberg laid out the details of the inevitable eclipse of Fox News:
But the back-and-forth these last few months masks a more ominous trend for Fox News, particularly as its gears up to cover the general election campaign. The most dominant cable news channel for nearly a decade and a political force in its own right, Fox has seen its once formidable advantage over CNN erode in this presidential election year, as both CNN and MSNBC have added viewers at far more dramatic rates.
In the first five-and-a-half months of 2004, the last presidential election year, Fox's prime-time audience among viewers aged 25 to 54 was more than double that of CNN's - 530,000 to 248,000, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research. This year, through mid-June, CNN erased the gap and drew nearly as many viewers in that demographic category as Fox - about 420,000 for CNN to 440,000 for Fox.
A Fox News spokeswoman, Dana Klinghoffer, refused several requests this week for comment about the channel's ratings and strategy. To be sure, the protracted nature of the race for the Democratic nomination, which extended months past that of the Republican race, tended to work to the disadvantage of Fox, which tilts overtly to the right on prime-time programs like "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity & Colmes." While Fox had no Democratic debates, CNN drew 8.3 million viewers for its Democratic candidates' debate on Jan. 31, more than six times its usual prime-time audience.
Meanwhile, Fox's hosts have seemed to struggle on camera to find a new voice. Three times in less than three weeks in late spring, Fox acknowledged making inappropriate references to Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee. It said on June 12 that it should not have referred in an on-screen headline to Mr. Obama's wife, Michelle, as his "baby mama." Previously, a Fox anchor, E. D. Hill, apologized for likening a seemingly affectionate fist bump by the Obamas at a rally to "a terrorist fist jab," and a Fox analyst, Liz Trotta, expressed contrition for making a joke about a possible assassination of Mr. Obama.
Those comments notwithstanding, a pillar of Fox's strategy, at least in the weeks since Mr. Obama vanquished Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been to bash him relentlessly.
Of course, CNN and MSNBC have no programs that tilt overtly to the left, and can never be accused of bashing John McCain.