NEW YORK The 2008 presidential election is a narrative at odds with itself -- a schizoid dialogue between the nation and its fears and wants.
Tightly plotted in the early chapters, the story line has veered off into erratic tangents, so much so that the themes that once defined the race (honor, change, hope, reform) have been obscured by discursive asides about two Joes (Plumber and Six-Pack) and lipsticked pigs.
Fox News Channel's Brit Hume calls this unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio "the fog," and the veteran-and-soon-to-retire-newsman says it's an unfortunate side effect of the accelerated, 24-hour news cycle. But beyond the tertiary political gamesmanship, the race's drama -- much of it centered around a resurgent Democratic party -- has lifted all boats on a flood tide of ratings, buzz and revenue. (Related: "Political Content Web Sites Ride the Surge.") 
Indeed, this wasn't supposed to be Fox News Channel's year, and yet 2008 has been nothing short of a bonanza, said Jay Wallace, vp of the network's news editorial product. "Earlier in the year we saw an awful lot of obituaries that had been written for us," said Wallace. "The prevailing notion was that the end of a Republican administration would be the end of Fox News as the ratings leader."
As is often the case, the doomsayers proved to be myopic. Since March 31, FNC has grown its average prime-time delivery by 21 percent versus the same period four years ago, averaging 2.06 million viewers per night. The network also retained its lead among the core news demo, averaging 501,000 adults 25-54, although its rivals have steadily gained ground since the days of the Bush-Kerry cycle.
FNC has exceeded its targets through the election cycle, and while the market crash has all but erased at least one category, the net has more than compensated for dwindling domestic auto dollars. "Foreign auto has cushioned a lot of the impact of what's going on with GM and Chrysler," said Paul Rittenberg, Fox News senior vp of ad sales. "We've also seen a lot of commitment from movies, which have always been a tough pitch for us."
FNC can go after a more youthful clientele because it continues to lead among the 18-49 demo. According to Nielsen Media Research data, since March 31 FNC has averaged 392,000 adults 18-49 in prime. CNN is hot on its heels, having jumped 88 percent in the demo versus the same period four years ago. "If you're going to be relevant, you have to appeal to that next generation of consumer who are starting to consume news in a very big way," said Greg D'Alba, executive vp and COO, CNN advertising sales and marketing.
Boasting a plugged-in audience and the Web's top-ranked news and information site (by gross usage minutes), CNN is particularly well positioned to sell integrated packages. These premium offerings have landed millions in business from nonendemic brands like Johnson & Johnson, which sponsored CNN's Heroes initiative, and Geico and McDonald's, which bought time on the net's Black in America series.
On the programming front, CNN continues to explore entertainment options, signing comedian D.L. Hughley to host a new Saturday night chat show set to bow Oct. 25. "Nothing will take away how we cover the news, but that's not to say that we can't do new, fun things in other dayparts," D'Alba said.
Since bowing on Sept. 8, MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show has doubled the ratings of Dan Abrams' Verdict, the previous occupant of the 9 p.m. slot. And in an election cycle where age and experience have been knocked around like so many semantic tetherballs, in her second night on the air, the 35-year-old Maddow beat CNN's eminence grise, Larry King. She also has bested lead-in Keith Olbermann, outdelivering Countdown on a number of nights, and in her first full month on-air averaged 1.64 million viewers.
If The Rachel Maddow Show doesn't exactly break the mold, hewing to the time-honored cable news tradition of sticking with a well-defined and unabashedly partisan position, the host's wry good humor and thoughtful demeanor go a long way toward differentiating her from the pack of screaming heads that can be found in other time slots and on rival networks. If nothing else, Maddow is the only breakout personality of 2008 who isn't named Obama or Palin.
"She's a natural. She's Willie Mays out there," said MSNBC president Phil Griffin. "She's found a huge audience right out of the gate because she's authentic and she's real." She's also the catalyst for one of the network's greatest triumphs. On the night of Oct. 14, MSNBC topped CNN and FNC in the 25-54 demo for the first time in nearly six months.
"It's a three-way race now," Griffin said. "We're hitting our marks in the demo, and we're appealing to a whole different universe of younger, smarter viewers