NEW YORK – Fox News Channel has outdrawn CNN in the ratings through the first five days of the war, a further proof of Fox's audience appeal and a blow to CNN, which was hoping to revitalize the reputation it built during the first Gulf War.
Through Monday, Fox News Channel has averaged 4 million viewers each day to CNN's 3.57 million. Fox's audience was bigger when the war began March 19, and every day through Monday, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While Fox has been the top-rated cable news channel for more than a year, industry experts wondered whether that lead would hold during a big breaking news story. CNN overtook Fox, for example, on Feb. 1 when the space shuttle disintegrated.
Despite CNN's overwhelming advantage in reporting manpower, more Americans -- at least so far -- want to watch the war unfold on Fox.
"I think it's a pretty big surprise," said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC president, on Tuesday. Because of CNN's experience with the first Gulf War, "I think people thought CNN would win, at least in its early stages. One of the executives there said they would own the story, and I don't think they do."
CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson downplayed Fox's ratings advantage, saying Nielsen shows that more people at least sample some of CNN's coverage during the day. Fox's ratings are higher because its viewers watch for a longer time.
CNN also draws viewers to its Headline News and has a greater presence overseas than Fox, Robinson said.
"We're perfectly comfortable having the biggest audience in the world," she said.
CNN has planned meticulously for its war coverage, hoping that it would turn the tide against Fox. With Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi, it had the last two staff members of an American TV network in Iraq until they were expelled on Friday.
A Fox News Channel spokesman didn't return a call for comment.
Fox's war coverage tends to be more uplifting, emphasizing the positive and trying to beef up morale and national identity, said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
The network usually maintains an American flag graphic on the upper left corner of its screen, and anchorman Shepard Smith wore a flag pin in his lapel on Tuesday.
Fox's fans seem to like the network's style more than the traditional news coverage of CNN, said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
The conservative ideology that drives its prime-time programming seems to be spreading more into its news coverage, he said.
"The Fox view is a useful one to have out there," Thompson said. "It's not as if they are hiding it or pretending that it's not there. You have three networks out there, they don't all have to be doing the same thing."
More viewers are watching war coverage with itchy fingers on their remotes, frequently shifting channels to find more action, Thompson said.
A survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that nearly four of every five people gave the press good marks for its war coverage. The survey found that people who agreed with the decision to go to war were happier with the coverage than those who disagreed.
During the busy first three months of the year, Fox's viewership has grown by 75 percent over the same period last year, Nielsen said. Fox and TNT are now tied for second behind Nickelodeon as the top-rated basic cable channel. CNN's audience has grown 53 percent year to year and MSNBC's 32 percent.
The war has provided a much-needed boost to MSNBC. The third-place cable network has averaged 1.73 million viewers for its war coverage.
MSNBC has played up its resources with the full NBC News team and, with NBC breaking into regular programming less frequently for war coverage, that has worked to MSNBC's advantage. MSNBC had 2.11 million viewers on Sunday, its best day since the war's start.
It dovetails with MSNBC's latest strategy, which is "to cover the news when it happens and analyze it when it's not happening," Sorenson said. The war is likely to delay the debut of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's new prime-time show, he said.