The Post-Scandal Blur

  • George Stephanopoulos, promoting his new book, was doing his bit for the cause last week, but to most sensible news viewers the Monica Lewinsky scandal is over. Which means that the TV pundits are having to get reacquainted with issues like school vouchers, and the all-news channels are discovering once again that--except for the times when we're unraveling a President's sex life, watching a former NFL star beat a murder rap or bombing Iraq--not all that many people want to watch news.

    The aggregate prime-time audience for the three leading cable news channels--cnn, msnbc and Fox--more than doubled at the height of the scandal and has predictably dropped way off since then. Less predictably, the battlefield looks different since the smoke has cleared. Fox, the youngest and least widely carried of the three (38.8 million homes, vs. 47.8 million for msnbc and 75.9 million for cnn), has moved past msnbc and into second place in the important prime-time hours, with a lineup of talk shows featuring Bill O'Reilly, Catherine Crier and conservative-liberal duo Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes. msnbc still draws more viewers around the clock. And cnn leads both by a wide margin. But last Monday, for the first time ever, Fox beat msnbc in 24-hour ratings--a milestone for Rupert Murdoch's upstart.

    In the groggy Monica morning-after, all three networks are reassessing strategy. Fox has hit on a successful formula that seems patterned after in-your-face (and predominantly conservative) talk radio. The Clinton scandal galvanized its core audience, and Fox seems the most reluctant of the three to let the story die. Last week it reported that Hillary Clinton no longer wants to be "in the same bed" with her husband. Yet Fox executives insist the channel is not a one-trick pony. "We're doing political and Washington news for people who like political and Washington news," says chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume. "That may be only a few hundred thousand people, but that's plenty."

    Downplaying Fox's gains, MSNBC executives point out that it draws more viewers in the key 25-to-54 age group sought by advertisers and that its audience is spread more widely across the Internet and other NBC-owned channels. (Brian Williams' nightly newscast, for example, is repeated an hour later on cnbc.) Though conservative hosts John McLaughlin and Oliver North were brought onboard during Monicagate, msnbc executives may be rethinking their saturation-talk approach. "We'll be all over the next big story," says vice president Erik Sorenson, "but not in exactly the same way. We learned something about tonnage. The blather got excessive."

    Market leader CNN (owned by TIME parent Time Warner) has its own problems. Its prime-time audience is the only one of the three to decline from a year ago. Yet CNN chief Rick Kaplan says the network will continue to stress the breadth of its coverage. "I don't want to put the network in a situation where if there's no news, we pick out the most tabloid story and talk about that for a whole day," he says. "Our core news viewer wants a mix."

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    Since the impeachment trial, the cable-news audience has been dropping. But Fox has consolidated its Monica-fueled gains, passing MSNBC in prime time while still lagging in all-day ratings