By David Bauder
The Associated Press
Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have eagerly fed a public hungry for war news, 24 hours a day. What happens when that hunger subsides?
Cable news networks face the same question whenever a big news story runs its course. Their audiences will get smaller, but each has reasons for optimism looking ahead.
"People spend an inordinate amount of time and they get hooked on the story, whether it's O.J. or Florida or whatever," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson. "When they sense that the drama or the suspense is over, then they almost rebel - I'm not going to watch any news for a month, I am so sick of news' - and the ratings take a nosedive."
In another month, Sorenson said the ratings should be back to prewar levels.
By most measures, each of the three networks were winners during the war. MSNBC's audience increased 357 percent prewar and postwar, while CNN's went up 305 percent and Fox News Channel 239 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The war coverage minted new stars: Fox's correspondent, ex-Marine Greg Kelly; MSNBC's ironman anchorman Lester Holt; and CNN's swashbuckling embed, Walter Rodgers.
Fox maintained its status as the top-rated news network throughout the war, something of an upset considering many observers believed CNN's greater resources would enable the older network to vault back into the lead.
Fox's flag-waving coverage struck a chord, considering polls showed a solid majority of Americans supported the war, said Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast department at Northwestern University.
"I think there is a solid core of viewers out in the country ... that wanted to watch a television station that supported the war, that was not critical, that was not interested in asking the tough questions," he said.
While CNN couldn't recapture the lead from Fox, three-fold ratings increases are nothing to sneeze at. CNN usually has more people than Fox tuning in over the course of a week; Fox's averages are higher because their viewers stay longer.
MSNBC's increase was the most dramatic, in part, because it was so far down to begin with. But the network, making full use of its NBC News resources, has been sharp in breaking news.
The ratings may also indicate that viewers are becoming much more comfortable with the cable news networks as a place to turn during big stories. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news broadcasts, cumulatively, haven't seen wartime boost their ratings very much.
Even as the war winds down, however, the news executives say it is providing both important news and compelling television.
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