Lofty Ambitions: Fox News Guns for USA Net's Top Rung | Adweek
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Lofty Ambitions: Fox News Guns for USA Net's Top Rung

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While pundits of all stripes will fall all over themselves this week as they try to assess the impact of President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, for Fox News Channel there’s nothing ambiguous about what the new administration has delivered…from a ratings perspective, anyway.

Since the inauguration, Fox News commands nearly half of the gross ratings points in the cable news marketplace, and is now on course to mark its tenth straight week as ad-supported cable’s No. 2 network.

Naturally, Fox News says that second place isn’t good enough. Even after taking the silver among ad-supported cable in the first quarter of 2009, averaging 2.26 million total viewers to USA Network’s record delivery of 3.26 million, the channel won’t rest until it has reached the summit. In short, FNC wants to win the prime-time ratings crown outright, and as the upfront season approaches, its ad sales team is trumpeting that message to media buyers.

If gunning for USA smacks of agitprop––in training its sights on the top general-entertainment network on cable, FNC is all but declaring total and unequivocal victory in the news race––the effort carries a whiff of pragmatism as well.

“This is a great chance for us to step back and say, ‘By the way, virtually all the growth in cable over the last year has been a result of news’,” said Paul Rittenberg, Fox News executive vp of ad sales. “If even two guys who don’t have news on their spec sheet say, ‘Hey let’s take a look at this,’ then I’m happy.”

Moreover, buyers don’t necessarily distinguish between news and the rest of what’s on TV. “From 8 to 11 p.m., it’s not news, it’s entertainment, and they’re the first to admit it,” said Mike Law, Carat vp and group director of national broadcast. “There’s a bit of a CPM premium, but nothing out of line.”

Running a perfect 15-for-15 in prime in 2009, USA isn’t likely to be overtaken until the fourth quarter, when ESPN storms back with Monday Night Football. During the week ended April 19, USA served up 3.04 million viewers, beating FNC by a margin of 563,000. (The closest Fox News has come to passing USA was in the week ended March 15, when it drew within 373,000 viewers.)

More importantly, however, USA is all but untouchable in key demos. In Q1 2009, the network swept all three major demos, including adults 25-54 (1.54 million) and 18-49 (1.46 million). By comparison, FNC averaged 515,000 members of the core news demo, while delivering 375,000 viewers 18-49.

“Look, Rittenberg is a smart guy and he has to say something new, something other than ‘We’re creaming CNN’,” said Gary Carr, senior vp, director of broadcast services at TargetCast tcm. “This time of year, every network is trying to position themselves, make themselves stand out from the crowd. It’s a good story, but they’re not going to be taking anything away from USA.”

If USA regularly triples FNC’s delivery of adults 25-54, the news net enjoys a much more affluent audience. Like rivals CNN and MSNBC, Fox News boasts a core audience with a median household income of $73,000, while USA’s share of the 25-54 set brings in $53,000.

“The USA proposition is based on a scaled-down broadcast model in that they’re going after the great unwashed, the real middle-of-the road viewer,” said one national TV buyer. “They get huge audiences with their original series and the WWE, and they don’t worry about upscale viewers. Whereas with Fox News, they can pitch their $100K audience, but as a news network they miss out on a lot of integrations and presenting sponsorships.”
USA and NBC Universal declined to comment.

While FNC has spent the last few years eliminating the dollar gap that separates it from its news rivals, it has a ways to go before it can claim equal footing with the major entertainment players.

Rittenberg has gone after big game before. In spring ’06, he drew a bead on the morning-news monoliths, touting FNC’s Fox & Friends as a viable alternative to ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today show and CBS’ The Early Show. That effort convinced him that the entire TV space was fair territory. “We have nearly a quarter of the nightly news GRPs, so there’s an opportunity for us to pitch ourselves against the network guys,” Rittenberg said. “It’s a challenging marketplace and we’re sticking to our guns in terms of talking up our share of voice.” (Per Nielsen data, FNC in 2009 accounted for 22.9 percent of the adult 25-54 nightly news GRPs. Runner-up NBC Nightly News ranks next, at 19.2 percent.)

While Fox News will make some noise in the upfront, Rittenberg doesn’t hold any illusions about the state of the advertising business. With Chrysler and General Motors on the brink of bankruptcy, an already vulnerable auto category is on its knees.

“We’ve benefited from the telecom wars, but I can’t say it’s making up for the loss of financial and automotive,” he said. Tech and travel have picked up, and Rittenberg sees an opportunity to bring in more cash with Fox Business Network, which he’ll guarantee against ratings deliveries as of July 1.

As for the race for the summit, Rittenberg is sanguine about FNC’s prospects. “I don’t know if we’ll ever catch them, but we’re going to keep things interesting.”