OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

War is heaven, or at least it has been so far for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. And there could be additional victories to come for his upstart American cable television network on a battlefield thousands of miles from Iraq: Madison Avenue.

The naysayers were out in full force in 1996, when Murdoch tapped Roger Ailes, a former Republican political consultant with extensive TV experience, to launch the Fox News Channel as an alternative to CNN, then the gold standard for cable news gathering and reporting. Fox News Channel cast aside the principals of objectivity and impartiality that had reigned supreme in the realm of big-media news since the days of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite, in favour of an approach borrowed from the wild world of US "talk radio", with its loquacious, opinionated hosts, invariably conservative, who continuously represent the point of view of the so-called angry white male.

Fox News Channel delights in repeating two slogans in its aggressive, bombastic promotional campaigns: "Fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide." Both are to be taken on face value as much as anything that's uttered by the suave attorney Billy Flynn in Chicago, who so famously opined: "Razzle dazzle 'em, and they'll make you a star."

Indeed, Fox News Channel, once hopelessly behind CNN in the ratings, began catching up, and has now surpassed its predecessor. CNN would retake the lead whenever momentous events took place, such as the Columbia space shuttle disaster, as viewers hungry for breaking news would revert to their old habits.

But last month, when the allied forces attacked Iraq, CNN - which made its reputation with its outstanding coverage of the first Gulf War - surprisingly didn't snap back. Fox News Channel kept its lead, and hasn't looked back; it's now the most-watched cable news network, home of four of the five most-watched cable news programmes. Even a fiasco involving colossal misjudgment by the network's flamboyant correspondent Geraldo Rivera barely slowed the juggernaut.

What gives? It's not unlike preaching to the converted, or motivating your core constituency to turn out on Election Day. The patriotic rhetoric of Fox News Channel anchors and reporters, who use "we" to refer to the US military and the official Pentagon name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to refer to their coverage, is pitch perfect in wartime. So those who support the war watch Fox News Channel, boosting its ratings. Those who oppose the war are unlikely to be watching CNN.

Though Fox News Channel has become the ratings leader, CNN remains well ahead in sales of commercial time. CNN's ad sales executives tout their network's global reach and its reputation as more trustworthy, along with data about viewer education and income they deem more desirable.

But Fox News Channel is beginning to brag about the growth of its upmarket audiences, with one key goal, as described by the trade publication Television Week: "Convincing Madison Avenue that Fox has the combo of audience quantity and quality to warrant nearly doubling its ad rates to CNN's cost-per-thousand levels."

Once Fox News Channel is fully mobilised, watch out AOL Time Warner.

Shock and awe, meet Murdoch and Ailes.


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