What happens to cable news without a campaign?

NEW YORK (AP) - November 9, 2008 Matthews said he wanted to "do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work."

Wait a minute. A declaration of political peace? On one of the three cable news networks that has thrived on political combat during the presidential election campaign?

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all knew the end would come. Now the networks must retool, and will learn how many of the new viewers who sought them out over the past year will stick around.

Over the last three months, each of the networks saw their prime-time audiences double over the same period a year ago. The climb was steeper at MSNBC (up 158 percent to 1.5 million people a night), compared to CNN (up 124 percent to 2 million) and Fox News Channel (up 101 percent to 3.3 million), according to Nielsen Media Research.

Yet it's been a truism for cable news networks since they began: what goes up invariably comes down when things get quieter. Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now a professor at George Washington University, recalled how his audience virtually disappeared when the first Gulf War ended. The networks will suffer some losses over the next few months, but he doesn't believe they will be dramatic.

"The market has changed," said Sesno, an occasional analyst at CNN. "I don't think this is episodic. I think it is structural and real and probably permanent. People have learned new viewing habits and new news consumption habits."

Matthews said he believes that the start of Obama's presidency may be a bigger story than the election itself.

The biggest change in the market has been at MSNBC, where Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have given the network an opinionated, liberal identity in prime time. That stands in contrast to Fox, the network of choice for the most Republican viewers. CNN said it is happy to occupy a middle ground, although its audience leans Democratic.

MSNBC should do better in quieter periods than it has in the past because of its clearer identity, said Erik Sorenson, who was president of the network at the time of the contested 2000 election.

"That said, the wrong guys won the election for MSNBC," he said. "If McCain won, Keith and Rachel would have a lot to talk about. The audience would have a lot to be angry about and focused on."

Phil Griffin, MSNBC's current chief, said some people won't follow things as intensely as they did the end of the campaign. "But a lot of them will," he said. "And they've found the voices they want to hear."

MSNBC's shift has come with some problems, like when some Republicans linked the network's stance with partner NBC News. The tension was on display when Scarborough and his sidekick Mika Brzezinski scolded Matthews for saying he wanted to see Obama's presidency work.

"We're all rooting for the success of Barack Obama," Scarborough said. "America is at a perilous time. But you just talked about being a journalist and your job is to not question motives, then two seconds later you said your job is to make the presidency a success. That's curious."

Griffin said he was satisfied with Matthews' explanation that, like any American, he hoped for the best for the country.

Maddow's show has been a relative sensation since it began in September, yet it will only now begin to operate in non-campaign mode. One worry: conservatives have proven much more reliable in following their favorite media personalities day to day than liberals.

David Gregory's MSNBC show, formerly "Race to the White House," became "1600 Pennsylvania Ave." on Wednesday.

Fox News Channel will replace Brit Hume in its evening lineup soon, most likely with another Washington-based show. Glenn Beck jumps to Fox from CNN Headline News in the spring.

With popular hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, Fox has generally proven less susceptible to big ratings declines than its rivals. Fox established itself at the end of the Clinton administration, and kept growing with a regime change in Washington.

CNN is euphoric about its Election Night ratings performance, when it finished second only to ABC in prime time. It has repositioned Campbell Brown, whose prime-time show used to be called "Election Center" and is now known as "No Bias. No Bull." Brown had some opinionated moments of her own during the campaign, including accusing McCain's campaign of sexism for keeping Sarah Palin under wraps.

Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president, said he believed his rivals have put CNN in a better position.

"We are the home of unbiased, straight-down-the-middle, reliable information and our competitors in cable very clearly defined themselves as the opposite of that, as entrenched, extreme partisans," Klein said. "Partisan information is not reliable information. We're going to take that ball and run with it."

Responded Griffin: "I was watching Lou Dobbs (the opinionated CNN host) last night. Come on, be honest about who you are and what you're doing."

One thing seems certain: It will be quieter on cable news than it has been in the recent past, if only because it marks the end of Olbermann's nightly comments.

The New York Daily News reported that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes told prime-time hosts Hannity, O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren to take it easy on Obama for a while in deference to the election's results. (Fox would not make its executives available for this article.)

Matthews said in an interview that he wants to see Obama succeed.

"Every journalist in history has recognized the appropriateness of a honeymoon," he said. "That comes with the territory. New presidents get honeymoons. That's as old as the republic. We recognize it and respect it ... That's a fact and there's nothing unjournalistic about that."


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EDITOR'S NOTE - David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org

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