Cable News Ratings: MH370 Obsession Boosts CNN And Fox News, While Al Jazeera America Avoids Indulgent Coverage

AlJazeera Setting itself apart from CNN and Fox News, the fledgling Al Jazeera America has resisted the urge to fixate on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Reuters

It’s been 19 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, and no one is more aware of that than viewers of CNN. The network’s obsessive, downright fanatical coverage of the aircraft’s mysterious disappearance has attracted no shortage of derision on social media and elsewhere. And whether it was the perpetual “Breaking News” graphics or Don Lemon speculating about black holes, it seems no media pundit was at a loss for snark. Even Jon Stewart got in on the ribbing, starting his “Daily Show” segment on Monday with an impassioned rant about CNN, in particular, filling up 24 hours of broadcasting time with a minute’s worth of solid information.

But it’s CNN’s Jeff Zucker who may be getting the last laugh, at least in the short term. Since the Flight 370 story broke on March 8, the network has seen a double-digit boost in viewership, and in fact, the mystery of the plane’s whereabouts has been the largest draw for CNN since the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. For the weeks of March 10 and March 17, CNN drew 800,000 and 842,000 total primetime viewers, respectively -- a significant jump from the 526,000 viewers the network drew for the week of March 3. The numbers are even higher than they were during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and they prove, once again, the degree to which CNN relies on major news events to drive its viewership.

StewartCNN Jon Stewart ribs CNN over its fanatical coverage of Flight 370.  Comedy Central via YouTube screenshot

But it’s a bittersweet success at best. Despite CNN’s decisive ratings hike, the network has still been unable to draw close to the amount of viewers as its conservative rival, Fox News Channel. True, there have been small victories -- Anderson Cooper has been clobbering Bill O’Reilly in the key 25-54 demographic. But Fox News, which has also been fixated on Flight 370 as of late, is still coming out far ahead. For the weeks of March 10 and March 17, Fox News drew 2 million and 1.2 million total primetime viewers, respectively. MSNBC, meanwhile, has trailed both networks, with 666,000 primetime viewers for the week of March 10 and 713,000 for March 17.     

Standing in sharp contrast to all three is the decidedly more measured Al Jazeera America, which has covered the missing plane story, of course, but not compulsively. The fledgling network’s primetime block includes its flagship program, “America Tonight,” which found time this week for extensive reports on suburban homelessness, the Obamacare deadline and an unconventional Dutch program that seeks to rehabilitate alcoholics by paying them with beer, among other stories. Absent from the network were countless flight-simulation sequences and reams of panel experts pouring over satellite photos of the Indian Ocean. Is it all part of a focused strategy, a way of setting the fledgling network apart from its competitors in a crowded space? Or is it part of a broader philosophy that news is meant to inform, not fixate? Probably a little of both.        

“We gave the [Flight 370] story the emphasis we believe to be appropriate at a time when there have been multiple important stories around the globe,” Kate O’Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, told IBTimes in a statement. “The missing plane, Ukraine/Crimea, Venezuela, the Abu Graith trial, the Snohomish County mudslide are among a number of important stories for our viewers.”

It’s worth noting that Al Jazeera America, which debuted in August 2013, is not in the same league as its more established counterparts in terms of audience size. It ranked No. 94 among cable networks last week, compared to MSNBC, which ranked 30; CNN, which ranked 22; and Fox News, which ranked 5. And unlike its competitors, Al Jazeera America did not see a significant boost in the weeks following Flight 370’s disappearance. (That 94 ranking has remained unchanged for the last several weeks.) In some ways, it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison: Al Jazeera America is available in about 55 million households, compared to, say, CNN’s 89 million. But if the proliferation of think pieces about Al Jazeera’s strategy are to be believed, the network is less concerned with short-term ratings than it is with building and maintaining a sustainable American presence, as BuzzFeed pointed out recently. In doing so, Al Jazeera America has already begun to carve out its own niche, if only by affirming that to cover world news, one must acknowledge that the world is larger than any single news story.

For more on that, watch Jon Stewart’s rant below.     

Got a news tip? Email me. Follow me on Twitter @christopherzara.

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