Living room ambassadors

Viewers say when it comes to news coverage, personalities matter more than fancy graphics.

Forget the fighter-plane graphics and maps of Iraq. What attracts viewers to cable networks during the war are not the special effects, but the people giving them the news.

They like the integrity of CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the bravery of the late David Bloom of MSNBC, and the smooth delivery of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.

If a reporter angers them or a host seems too jingoistic, they simply defect to another channel. And a little bit of candor apparently goes a long way: When a CNN anchor admitted recently that he couldn't read "tomorrow's headlines tonight" because they ran out of printer paper, he wowed one fan.

"Aaron Brown rocks my world," says Julie Swenson, the founder of a public relations firm in Minneapolis. "No one else would admit to something like being out of printer paper. They'd say something more haughty to cover it up."

TV news personalities are under more pressure during wartime to keep people from using their remotes, especially now that Americans have so many choices for news - both on TV and the Internet. Anchors and reporters serve as ambassadors for the networks, which would like people to stick around even after there's no more footage of toppling statues. During the war, viewership on all three of the major cable news networks has spiked 200 percent or more over the same time last year.

Networks try to emulate the Internet with frequent updates and Web-style menuing. But after spending eight hours at work getting information about the Iraqi war from their computers, what Americans really want their TV experience to focus on is people, say media critics.

"It becomes more about storytelling, and whether you trust that person who's telling the story," says Richard Hanley, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Figuring out exactly who will keep people watching has perplexed cable executives in recent years. Battling for an ever shrinking audience, they have relied increasingly on big-name hosts and reporters to "brand" their news and boost ratings.

CNN and MSNBC in particular have rotated people on and off the air with great frequency. MSNBC fired talk-show host Phil Donahue recently, but shortly before that, it had picked up former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. And CNN canceled Connie Chung's program and canned the afternoon chat program "Talk Back Live," indicating a move toward hard news.

"A lot of networks are learning that the personality wars aren't working as well as they would have hoped," says Mel Coffee, a professor of broadcast journalism at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.

Ratings leader Fox has avoided some of the "schizophrenia" that characterizes the other networks, he says. "Fox really is focused on the coverage, regardless of who's in the anchor chair," observes Professor Coffee. That said, its outspoken host, Bill O'Reilly, dominates cable network ratings.

Most Americans turn first to CNN for breaking news, according to a TV Guide poll released last week. But Fox News is keeping them watching longer. The network was already typically winning the ratings war before the first bombs fell in Baghdad, and has remained the prime-time leader during the ensuing weeks.

The three main cable news networks are showing significant increases in viewership over the same time last year. But the number of those watching has dropped since the war's initial days, when Fox averaged 5.6 million prime-time viewers, CNN 4.4 million, and MSNBC 2.2 million, reports Nielsen Media Research.

Last week, Fox's average prime-time audience fell to 4.5 million, followed by CNN with 3.4 million, and MSNBC with 1.7 million. Even with the decline, Fox drew slightly more viewers last week than the previous week, the only one of the three to do so.

"Fox News is the best," says Camillo Borruso, a retired businessman who lives in West Islip, N.Y., and often makes sure the channel is on at the YMCA where he works out.

A self-described conservative, he watches the network for its similar perspective, though he disagrees with the approach it took with regard to one correspondent: "Geraldo, for what he did, he should be fired," he argues. Last week, Mr. Rivera drew a map in the sand describing where he was with US troops during a broadcast. Military brass quickly invited him to leave Iraq. (Monitor freelancer Philip Smucker similarly offended the military during a CNN interview.)

Some who track the network suggest that Fox News has had to jockey less with its on-air personalities because its identity is more clearly defined - people know what to expect when they tune in. The network also utilizes the medium to its advantage, says Coffee, noting its nightclub-like music and fast pace. He says when he asks students to watch Fox they often call it "cool" and say it speaks to them.

Whether a media outlet will attain lasting prominence, as CNN did after the first Gulf War, is not yet clear. Some media watchers say the ultimate winner may be the Internet, which many Americans turn to at work for information and are using to find non-US perspectives, including those from international sites like Al Jazeera.

The infusion of patriotism on all three cable networks - perhaps influenced by Fox and the country's mood - has driven some Americans to bypass the domestic channels completely, opting instead for Britain's BBC and Canada's CBC.

The nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC have not seen the kind of ratings spike experienced by the cable channels, even though they often offer more context to daily events than the cable networks.

"NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" and ABC's "World News Tonight" have seen slightly more viewers during the war, but those numbers are slipping. Last week, NBC's news program attracted 10.8 million viewers on average (vs. 11.2 the previous week) compared to ABC's 9.9 (10.2 the week before). CBS "Evening News" has been losing viewers in recent weeks and last week drew 7.3 million people (vs. 7.9 the week before).

Tira Grey, a 20-something producer for a nonprofit television company, makes a point of watching the evening news on the traditional networks, partly because she got her start at CBS. She says her choices are definitely personality driven, with her first stop usually being Peter Jennings on ABC. "I find that his off-the-cuff remarks and narratives are the most intelligent of the three," she says.

Among the 1,044 people surveyed for TV Guide, NBC's Brokaw was the news anchor they trusted the most (22 percent). There was roughly a three-way tie for second place among ABC's Mr. Jennings (17 percent), CBS's Dan Rather (16 percent), and Fox's Mr. Smith (16 percent).

Professor Hanley sees Smith as the news anchor of the future, someone who appeals to a different generation not through authority so much as polish and confidence. "If you think of Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather as kind of like the nice father, he's the slick uncle. He's very good."

Meanwhile, as events from Baghdad continue to unfold, it's up to the current anchors and correspondents to keep people from straying. At least one observer suggests that the reason Americans are so focused on the personalities on screen is that it keeps them from having to make serious decisions about the coverage they are seeing.

"You end up sparing yourself having to deal with the political meaning behind the selection of the images, the frequency of the images," says Stanley Baran, chair of the communication department at Bryant College. "It becomes a TV show."

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