Fox Bites CNN in Ad War–But Is Anyone Listening?

The spittle-flecked guest panels of The O’Reilly Factor aren’t the only ones getting caught in the crossfire of the cable news battle. In the Nov. 29 issue of Advertising Age, readers opened to page 11 to find a full-page spread taken out by Fox News. With a design as swaggering as New York Post wood, clean white type set against a jet-black background read: “Think about it … if CNN’s advertising is misleading, why would you trust their journalism?”

The ad took direct aim at CNN and the ratings formula the Time Warner flagship promotes to its stable of advertisers, which includes estimates of viewers in hotels, airports and bars, for instance, and not just housebound loyalists.

Not to be outdone, one week later, CNN took out the back cover of the trade publication with a full-page ad of its own defending its methods.

“More People Count,” the CNN ad read, touting the brand’s global reach across multiple broadcast channels and a popular news Web site that, in 2004, recorded an average of 23 million monthly users, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

While bigger men battle over the state of the soul of television journalism (think Rathergate!), the more quotidian battle of the television business-for viewers, and therefore for advertising dollars-is starting to take on its own ideological cast.

There’s not much debate about who’s winning. At the end of 2004, a television year pumped up by Iraq war coverage and a divisive Presidential election cycle, Fox continued its three-year hold on No. 1 ratings: It now trumps all of its cable news rivals combined. According to Nielsen Media Research, Fox pulled in an average of 913,000 viewers, compared to CNN’s 479,000. During the coverage of the Presidential election night on Nov. 2, an average of 8.05 million tuned into Fox News, outpacing CNN by some two million viewers.

CNN, for its part, has countered Fox’s ratings boom with research showing that 11 percent more “cumulative” viewers tuned to CNN in 2004, and that Nielsen undercounts its total audience by not factoring in airports, gyms and bars that all display CNN. Fox battled back by saying the News Corp. network beats CNN in prime-time “cume,” and that Fox has closed the monthly average to a 2 percent gap.

In pitching its case to advertisers, each network is seeking to focus public perception of what each views as its comparative advantage as media properties.

But is anybody buying this stuff? The point of debate in the recent Advertising Age spreads is whether a global brand like CNN that spans multiple broadcast networks and Internet sites offers advertisers increased value; or whether Fox’s nightly ratings advantage, as measured by the industry-standard Nielsen rating, remains the true selling point.

But several ad buyers contacted by The Observer said they don’t care.

“The most important thing is, you can make the numbers dance,” said Ray Warren, a managing director and head of broadcast at OMD. “Ads are not the criteria at which we’re going to make a buy; they are not important to people who are executing the buys. They might be to the casual reader of Ad Age, who kind of flips through the pages and stops for a second and is like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know that.’ But at the end of the day, when we’re making a buy, we’re using some pretty sophisticated tools and looking pretty damn hard at the numbers before we spend a penny.”

So, if the advertising industry isn’t buying the message, just who are the networks speaking to?

“It just doesn’t matter. It’s just them talking to each other,” Mr. Warren said.

“It’s all part of the P.R. machine looking for the story on how they’re both trumping one another,” said Harry Keeshan, the executive vice president of national-broadcast buying strategies for PHD USA. “It’s makes for good reading.”

“You can always make numbers work for you one way or the other,” said Aaron Cohen, the executive vice president of broadcast at Horizon Media. Mr. Cohen added that Fox’s larger nightly audience is increasingly attractive to media buyers seeking access to a large audience of consumers. “Usually, for the buyers’ prospective, a ‘cumulative’ audience is not actively used for comparative purposes. It’s more of an exploitative number. It’s a number that gives CNN a position to talk about. The basis for normal comparison is a specific advertising schedule and what the relative audience for those programs are.”

Media bouts, especially for News Corp., are nothing new, of course. Last January, the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post propped up a 66-foot billboard directly across from the Daily News’ headquarters on the eastern reaches of 33rd Street. The copy read: ” New York Post Circulation: 652,427,” with the last two numbers blurred like a ticker advancing to the next digit. Then came the kicker: “Go ahead and stare. They’re real.”

But, unlike the Post’s circulation war against the Daily New s, the recent CNN and Fox Advertising Age spreads represent, in many ways, the two networks’ contrasting visions: Fox as a ratings engine, and CNN as a global media brand.

“There is definitely a certain elitism in people saying, ‘You know, this is how a story should be covered.’ That’s almost a theological debate. For an advertiser, it doesn’t matter,” said Paul Rittenberg, Fox’s senior vice president of advertising sales. “Was our [tsunami] coverage not as good because Shepard Smith didn’t go and Anderson Cooper did?” Mr. Rittenberg added. “I don’t think so. Do most TV viewers care? I really doubt it. I think the TV critic for The New York Times cares, but that’s not exactly who Fox News is designed to reach.”

“To talk about a monthly ‘cume,’ as [Roger] Ailes has said many times, [is] basically bragging about channel surfers,” Mr. Rittenberg said, referring to CNN’s methodology.

“By our standards, doing an ad a couple of times calling [CNN] basically liars is not that extreme,” he added. “Us going back at them was kind of a typical Fox thing, to tweak them a little bit to say: ‘Hey, who do you think is buying this?'”

“Well, the message that reach matters-that having more people does matter-was consistent with the message we’ve been putting out there for a long time,” said Scot Safon, CNN’s senior vice president of marketing and promotion, who placed the ad. “The message wasn’t necessarily developed in response to that Fox ad, but the placement absolutely was.”

“Fox will always present the strength of a commercial spot against their commercial rating, because they are a program entity; that’s all they have,” said Greg D’Alba, CNN’s chief operating officer for ad sales. “Fox can’t accumulate their assets, because they don’t have the assets. They can’t accumulate their brand, because their brand can’t accumulate. CNN, over a history of 20 years, has proven its ability to platform content and to reach viewers and users.

“Our record stands on its own,” he continued, “but the comments that they make-if we paid attention to every slanderous comment, we wouldn’t be doing our job.”

Still, the ratings gap between Fox and CNN remains significant. Working with a hard-news event like the tsunami tragedy in Asia, long a staple of CNN coverage, boosted CNN’s numbers up 34 percent in the first 10 days of coverage compared to the same period last year. But they still lagged behind Fox by some 300,000 viewers, and by last Friday, CNN’s ratings had slipped to 461,000.

The slugfest comes in the midst of a significant overhaul for CNN.

CNN’s message to advertisers promotes its global news-gathering abilities, the same message being pushed by new network President Jonathan Klein.

“Our greatest strength is their greatest fear, and that’s our capability of reaching a global audience day in and day out,” said Mr. D’Alba.

As these two business models play out in the cable news marketplace, advertisers clearly welcome the fight.

“In our eyes, as buyers, it’s more competition,” said Mr. Keeshan of PHD, “and that’s a good thing.”