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In shift, Fox News' ratings top networks during RNC

NEW YORK -- Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings playing second fiddle to Brit Hume on a major story would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago.

Now that it's happened -- Fox News Channel beating NBC, CBS, and ABC in head-to-head competition during the Republican convention -- TV watchers are pondering whether the unprecedented event was epochal or inevitable.

Fox's triumph was one of a handful of intriguing media stories to emerge from the GOP convention -- including a resurgent MSNBC, sagging CNN, and the fading influence of the broadcasters.

When President Bush delivered his acceptance speech Thursday night, 7.3 million people saw it on Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, 5.9 million watched on NBC, 5.1 million on ABC, 5 million on CBS, 2.7 million on CNN, and 1.7 million on MSNBC, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Fox also beat the broadcast networks on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Obviously, it's a very good week for us," said Bill Shine, Fox News Channel vice president of production. "It means that all of the hard work that we've done over the past eight years has paid off."

Not only have the broadcast networks long held an advantage over cable in stature, they're available to more people. ABC, CBS, and NBC are seen in about 110 million homes, while Fox is carried in about 85 million.

"This is like watching for Barry Bonds' 700th home run," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "You know it's going to happen but it's still an event when it does."

During the Democratic convention, CNN scored better ratings than Fox. That was a manifestation of what pollsters had been finding, that the nation's partisan divide is increasingly being seen in how people pick their news outlets. CNN is more popular with Democrats, Fox with Republicans.

"I think there's some danger in overreacting to these numbers," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media research group. "I think this is interesting and important, but I don't know that it's a watershed that signals we've moved in electronic journalism to some kind of partisan European model."

More viewers still sought non-partisan sources for GOP convention news, he said.

Shine has heard the whispers: that Fox is a Republican network that would naturally score big at the Republicans' big event. Fox considers that an old, simplistic argument. Shine noted that Fox News Channel outrated CNN and MSNBC -- and the Weather Channel, too -- during coverage of Hurricane Charley's aftermath last month.

"If somebody still wants to look at all of that and say, `Oh, it's just because we're a Republican network,' then they haven't figured us out yet," he said. "And because of that, we're going to have more success."

Fox presents a good-looking, exciting telecast while some of its rivals "are still producing the convention as if it were the 1960s," he said.

"With these numbers, we can expect more talent to flee [ABC News president David] Westin's magic kingdom," said Fox News spokesman Rob Zimmerman. Two of Fox's chief personalities, Hume and Chris Wallace, are ABC refugees.

Said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider: "If that were true, clever, or funny, I guess I'd respond."

During the convention, Fox kept prime-time stars Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on the air for much of the evening, with Hume sliding in for the big speeches.

Hannity offered his GOP guests a warm embrace. "People are in for some very good speeches tonight, aren't they?" was his opening question to White House communications director Dan Bartlett.

O'Reilly was criticized during the Democratic convention when Fox carried less of the newsmaker speeches than their rivals. But it didn't reverse course for the Republicans. On Thursday, O'Reilly didn't air a speech by Tommy Franks when CNN and MSNBC did.

Like they did for the Democratic convention, ABC, CBS, and NBC each provided three hours of GOP coverage, missing entirely Monday's program with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Although criticized for sparse coverage, the broadcasters' low ratings (CBS was down 20 percent in viewers from the 2000 GOP convention) are only likely to convince executives that they made the wise choice. "The networks have made it clear, about as emphatically as they can, that they are not the primary source for watching the convention," Rosenstiel said.

Besides Fox, MSNBC found cause for celebration. The perpetually troubled news network twice beat CNN during the 10 p.m. hour, when most people were watching the convention.

New MSNBC chief Rick Kaplan has sought to get NBC News personnel more involved in the cable station, and it showed with the frequent reports by Brokaw and Tim Russert. It was a breakout performance, too, for Chris Matthews as MSNBC's coverage from Herald Square felt more lively than CNN's.

Matthews became a story himself when a disgruntled Senator Zell Miller, after a tough interview, wished he could challenge the "Hardball" host to a duel.

"MSNBC's growth and momentum during both conventions is a vital part of NBC News' success in reaching, on average, nearly one-third of the audience watching convention coverage this summer," said NBC News president Neal Shapiro.

It was a tough week for CNN, which lagged far behind Fox. During the 10 p.m. hour on Wednesday, for example, Fox's viewership beat CNN's by about 5-to-1. CNN, in a statement, said it was pleased ratings were above the network's average for both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

CNN rented a diner near Madison Square Garden for broadcasts like "Crossfire," but it failed to leave much of an impression.

"It's that type of [bland] cuisine that they were offering to viewers," Rosenstiel said.

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