February 5, 2007

Fox On Top, But MSNBC Surges

January Numbers Prime time 2007 Prime time 2006 Daytime 2007 Daytime 2006
MSNBC 525 344 319 222
CNN 799 709 528 463
Fox News 1578 1451 877 901

It’s a new year for cable news networks, and that’s bringing particularly good news for the perennial third-place finisher in a three-network ratings battle.

Since its founding in 1996, MSNBC has struggled to find a niche between CNN—with its reputation for global reach and resources—and the Fox News Channel—with its faster-paced, personality-driven programming. Although it still lags far behind in prime time and daytime audience, the January 2007 Nielsen Media Research numbers reveal a dramatic rate of viewer growth.

MSNBC averaged 525,000 prime time viewers in January 2007, an impressive 53% increase over its numbers for the same month last year (344,000). Daytime growth wasn’t far behind. In January 2007, MSNBC averaged 319,000 daytime viewers, up 44% from 222,000 a year earlier.

What about the competition? Fox News continued to dominate in sheer numbers with 1.58 million prime time viewers last month—a 9% increase over January last year (1.45 million). But the network suffered a 2% drop in daytime viewers, sliding to 877,000 in January 2007 from 901,000 the year before.

Second-place CNN is well behind Fox News in viewers, but enjoyed a bigger increase in audience in January. Prime time viewership was up about 13%—to about 800,000 from 709,000. The network’s daytime viewership climbed 14%, growing to 528,000 from 463,000.

A key factor in MSNBC’s prime time performance is the growing popularity of Keith Olbermann, host of “The Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” With its mix of the day’s news (both serious and soft) and a hefty dose of personality and opinion (both moralizing and sarcastic), Olbermann is establishing himself as the most aggressively liberal voice on cable and the self-styled nemesis of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.

The growth in Olbermann’s viewership in January 2007—up 83% over the previous year—is generating serious attention in the industry. For the same period, the audience for “The O’Reilly Factor,” which airs opposite "Countdown," also increased, but by only 5%. (According to Nielsen, O’Reilly—the top-rated cable host—still attracts an average of 2.5 million viewers a night, compared with Olbermann’s 673,000.)

MSNBC executives have been quick to trumpet the good news. The network has a new tagline, “the fastest growing news channel,” and a new ad mocking its two competitors.

It may be a little early for gloating. But after years of having TV analysts and pundits write its obituary, MSNBC is certainly showing signs of life.