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Spin Cycle: How The Cable Nets Would Like Us To Report February’s Ratings

Yes, kids, the Mediaite Spin Cycle is back! So prepare for another exciting trip through reams of cleverly-crafted bullet points and pie charts as the devoted number-crunchers at MSNBC, CNN, and (what we imagine) Fox News would do their best to somehow make Nielsen’s month-end ratings look as if, yes, everybody won! We imagine because Fox News does not send out press releases.

Did they? Did they really? It all depends on who you talk to. (And, just like last month, we had to imagine Fox News’ news release, since they again took the day off for a champagne party or something to celebrate the numbers)

MSNBC’s Headline: MSNBC BEATS CNN IN PRIME FOR THE 13TH MONTH IN A ROW AMONG TOTAL VIEWERS AND A25-54

Their takeaway? MSNBC argues its recently-reworked primetime lineup, which reshuffled in the aftermath of Keith Olbermann‘s departure from the network in January, has maintained its overall strength, beating CNN among both total viewers and viewers 25-54. Olbermann’s replacement at 8 p.m., Lawrence O’Donnell, beat CNN for the 36th consecutive month at 8 o’clock, and Rachel Maddow had her strongest performance since March 2009. MSNBC’s Morning Joe, meanwhile, marked a full year as cable’s “number two morning show,” beating CNN and HLN among total viewers.

What’s not being said? While Lawrence O’Donnell has been able to “keep the streak alive” with wins over CNN at 8, he’s lost ground compared to Olbermann, dropping nine percent compared to Olbermann’s Countdown during the same period last year. CNN, meanwhile, was up over the same period by 27 percent among viewers 25-54.

Top performer Rachel Maddow was up versus a year ago, but so is CNN, with ratings rollercoaster Piers Morgan, who threatens MSNBC’s second-place status some nights, and falls away dramatically on others.

A big omission? Ten p.m., where CNN’s Anderson Cooper has overtaken MSNBC’s Ed Schultz. How can that be, you ask, when MSNBC declared itself the winner over CNN in all hours of primetime? Because that includes the strong ratings for MSNBC’s Friday night prison series, Lockup. (MSNBC talks of hours, not programs: clever!) Looking just at Schultz versus Cooper, Cooper wins, beating The Ed Show among viewers 25-54 and among total viewers.

CNN’s Headline: IN FEBRUARY CNN GROWS 55% IN M-F PRIMETIME COMPARED TO A YEAR AGO, THE MOST OF ANY CABLE NEWS NETWORK; CNN OVERTAKES MSNBC AT 10 PM AND IN TOTAL DAY

Their takeaway? CNN’s numbers are up, and CNN edged MSNBC at 10 o’clock, thanks to strong performance from AC 360. In the battle to overtake MSNBC, CNN argues it’s getting much, much more competitive, with the network significantly narrowing the gap with MSNBC at 8 pm and 9 pm compared to 4th quarter averages.

What’s not being said? It’s unclear how much Anderson Cooper’s ratings power comes from viewers choosing the show, versus events (this was a big news month, and among all shows on CNN, AC 360 was exceptionally aggressive in covering Egypt and Libya, among other stories) which could send ratings at 10 slumping when world news cools and politics pushes opinion programs like The Ed Show back in front.

Also, while Piers Morgan Tonight has had some strong ratings performances (and delivered a ratings boost versus the fourth quarter of 2010 as Larry King wound down), it’s also spent a lot of time in distant third place behind Maddow, and even behind other CNN programs who aren’t getting nearly nonstop promotion.

Fox News’ Headline: (Our Best Guess since they don’t do Press Releases): FOX NEWS IS THE BIGGEST, BADDEST CABLE NEWS NETWORK THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN. WE DON’T WORRY ABOUT THOSE LITTLE NETWORKS–SORRY, FORGOT THEIR NAMES–BUT THE BROADCAST NETS BETTER WATCH THEIR BACKS

Their (theoretical) takeaway: How much better are we than CNN and MSNBC (if that’s what you call them)? FNC has been the most-watched news channel for 110 consecutive months among total viewers in both primetime and total day. In primetime, FNC beat CNN and MSNBC combined. In fact, go ahead and throw in HLN. We beat all three of them combined. You got more questions? Okay, how about this: check the list of the top ten cable news programs among total viewers. Notice anything? Yeah. All Fox News. Next.

What’s not being said? Okay, well, sure, Fox News is strong. Very strong. But February wasn’t its best month ever. The network loves beating CNN and MSNBC combined, and FNC did just that–all shows from Fox and Friends at 6 a.m. through Hannity at 9. But not at 10, where Greta Van Susteren has slipped, creating a rare window for the other networks to potentially give Fox a race for number one. Compared to a year ago, Van Susteren lost ground among viewers 25-54, while Cooper and Schultz gained. Van Susteren’s dip–13%–won’t set off alarm bells, especially with star performers Hannity and O’Reilly also seeing drops in February. The difference, of course, is how far ahead Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are to start with. For Van Susteren, there’s just far less distance between her show and the competition, meaning she’s got far less wiggle room for an off month. That creates the potential for a Fox upset, which Fox hates.

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