It’s really no contest anymore – not the race among the Democratic presidential candidates but the battle for cable news ratings supremacy.

Fox News Channel continues to crush CNN and MSNBC in the political season. The latest available Nielsen Media Research numbers, for the week of Jan. 19-25, show the “Fair and Balanced” network averaging 1.8 million viewers in prime time to rank seventh among all cable networks.

CNN had 906,000 viewers during the same period and MSNBC just 363,000.

The week included the Iowa caucuses and President Bush’s State of the Union address, both of which received substantial attention on all three cable news networks. CNN must be wondering what hit it after making another major investment in political coverage. The granddaddy of cable news has fallen and can’t seem to get up. Fox’s recent hiring of respected Chris Wallace from ABC News is another blow.

Like the Democratic candidates of late, rival news operations are hesitant to attack the front-runner – at least by name.

During a CNN session in Hollywood earlier this month, anchor Wolf Blitzer told TV critics, “If you’re distorting, or if you’re tilting towards one side, believe me, that will come through very, very quickly. And you’ll be slapped very quickly, as you should be.”

It seemed to be an obvious jab at Fox and its oft-alleged conservative bent. But in a separate interview, Blitzer demurred.

“Look, Fox does a lot of stuff really well and they do a lot of good reporting,” he said. “They’re all pretty much really solid.”

“Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert, who regularly contributes to MSNBC, told TV critics that if viewers “believe that someone is biased and someone is not playing it straight … they’re going to turn you off.”

Russert then pretty much turned himself off when asked why Fox has been so successful.

“Well, I think that Fox News has carved out a niche in the cable field, and they openly acknowledge it,” he said before turning the subject back to Meet the Press.

Wallace, who joined Fox late last year, said he perceived Fox as aggressive rather than conservative during his final years at ABC.

Still, he worried a little upon first arriving.

“It’s a little bit like getting married and wondering what your wife is going to do,” he said. “Now that the deal has been made, is she going to wake up and come down in hair curlers? So I was curious to see if things were going to change a little bit once I actually came to Fox News. But there were no marching orders, no agenda … It’s just been, “Do the best you can.”‘

Dennis Miller, who was a weekend commentator on Fox before starting his own show on CNBC last week, contends that his old network still owes him $12,000. Otherwise his endorsement of Fox is more money in the bank for the dominant cable news network.

“I don’t watch Fox and think “Oh my God, this is right-wing propaganda.’ I think they’re pretty measured – as measured as CNN is.”


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AP-NY-02-02-04 0917EST

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