Earlier this week, in an email obtained by TVNewser, CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker described his network as closing the gap on longtime cable news leader Fox News. CNN “is as close to Fox in viewers as we have been since 2009, and adults 25-54 as we have been since 2008,” he wrote.
But, as it turns out the gap has grown so far in 2016 compared to 2015. In prime time last year, the gap was 1.077 million viewers. Two months into 2016, FNC leads CNN by 1.143 million.
Zucker boasted that “CNN beat Fox News in prime time demos in September, October and December. And we are on pace to do so again this month…that would be 4 out of the last 6 months CNN has beaten Fox in prime time demos, the first time that has happened in more than 14 years.”
A closer look at the number shows, for February-to-date, Fox News is ahead of CNN by 28,000 demo viewers.
So here’s the key to decoding various ratings claims made by the cable news networks: it all depends on how you crunch the numbers. In October, Fox News beat CNN in the demo by a narrow margin of just about 1,000 viewers. But CNN’s monthly ratings news release was headlined: “CNN #1 in Prime Time Demo for Second Straight Month; First Time in 14 Years.” The claim of victory was based on the following ratings data:
There’s a lot of fine print at the bottom of that chart. CNN uses a blended Nielsen metric of Live +SD, Live +3 and Live +7, compared to Fox News and MSNBC, which use Live +SD. (Also used by TVNewser in our daily Scoreboard.)
It’s the blend that put CNN over the top in October. So how legit is blending? In network television, the Live +SD is falling out of favor. Last fall Fox Television Group dropped live-plus-same-day, describing the metric as “no longer relevant.” The idea is that judging a scripted series like Empire on how many viewers it gets the night it airs means losing the impact of the many viewers who DVR the show and watch it later. Live +SD “does not reflect the way people are watching our series,” said a network memo, nor “how we monetize our content.”
Live sports and news, however, are far less likely to be recorded and watched days later. CNN began using blended data with its push into films and original series like Anthony Bourdain‘s Parts Unknown, and shows from Lisa Ling, Bill Weir and Mike Rowe (as well as the forthcoming Race for the White House, narrated by Kevin Spacey).
For cable news channels, Live +SD is the standard that ad sales teams sell on, and advertisers buy on. But for CNN, blending the data is making the difference between getting very close–and winning.