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When it comes to political coverage, cable is still king

PalingibsonWherever it may lead politically, Sarah Palin's first big interview since her entry onto the political stage a couple of weeks ago -- a two-day sitdown with ABC's Charlie Gibson, which will start airing on Thursday's World News, continue on Nightline and wrap up in a one-hour special on 20/20 at 10 p.m. Friday -- has an unusual significance for TV news: It's the first time this entire election year that the broadcast news divisions are leading the pack in political coverage. As I wrote a couple of months ago, the broadcast networks practically left the field during primary season. The Los Angeles Times had a piece Thursday declaring that the broadcast nets are flexing their muscles again now that the presidential race is in the stretch drive, and certainly they can still deliver a huge audience.

Tvnews But I suspect that a lot of viewers who used to count on ABC, CBS and NBC for their political news are gone for good. During the party conventions the past couple of weeks, the biggest audiences were not for the broadcast nets but the cable-news channels that have been covering the presidential race in depth and detail all year long. The highest-rated net during the Democratic convention was CNN; during the Republican convention, Fox News. Fox News had the best ratings overall during the two conventions combined, and the total viewing audience split about 50-50 between broadcast and cable.

It's possible that I'm wrong; television viewers are notoriously stubborn about defying the expectations of high-paid network executives (how many networks have Connie Chung and Paula Zahn flopped on?) but indigent chattering-class critics like me. For instance, how many times early in the year did you read that Keith Olbermann is the future of TV journalism or that the imminent demise of the Bush administration and the Republican Party doomed Fox News? Olbermann certainly has his fans, but MSNBC came in dead last in the Nielsens during the party conventions, and now he's lost his anchor spot there.

As for the Fox-News-is-dead school of thought, of which lefty pundit Eric Boehlert was the primary exponent, consider the year-to-date Nielsen numbers: Fox News is not only the highest-rated cable-news network all day long, but, during prime time, the fourth-most popular channel in all of cable. (CNN is 19th; MSNBC 27th.) Its average prime-time audience of 1.8 million is almost as big as that of the other two cable news channels combined.

Boehlert's dizzy contention that "Fox News is in for a very rough 2008" was based on the assumption that the only people who watch are Republicans, which he considers an endangered species. That appears to have been a misreading of political trends, if the current polling results are anything other than a hallucination, and was simply dead wrong about the nature of the Fox News audience: A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study last month revealed that 55 percent of Fox News viewers are either independents or Democrats. 

For years, hostile TV critics and political columnists have been writing that Fox News was some kind of weird transitory political phenomenon, the video equivalent of Pet Rocks or Ross Perot, that would soon disappear. Isn't it time to start acknowledging the obvious -- that Fox News is here to stay?

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