US TV viewers show signs of war fatigue

MUMBAI: It could be the fact that the US-led invasion of Iraq is not quite according to script, but viewers in America seem to be losing some of their appetite for gorging on the incessant TV coverage.



Media outlets - which anticipated a quick and decisive victory in Iraq - now worry that viewers and readers are on the verge of information overload and need a break. Moreover, the cost of covering the war is beginning to weigh on their budgets.

General Electric Co, parent of the NBC television, conceded on Wednesday that preempting some entertainment shows in favor of news had cost it $50 million in pretax profits.

Ratings are still running strong at cable news channels CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, but have declined since the war's early days. And with the new strain of pneumonia (SARS) from China people fear is fast spreading across the globe, it looks likely that SARS-related stories are going to increasingly rival for attention the space the war is getting.

There is of course the coverage overload factor. Unlike the first Gulf war of 1991, where it was "only CNN", this one is being covered 24/7 on three cable news networks in the United States.

According to a poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last Friday, there was also a steady increase in viewers who found the coverage "frightening to watch".

The constant television airing of the war has already led to questions about whether TV is distorting the event's reality, or causing unrealistic expectations. The Bush administration is getting increasingly frustrated with more and more media reports questioning why the military operation isn't already over.

Fox News Leads ratings:

While there may be some doubts surfacing as to exactly how smoothly this conflict will unfold on the ground, on the US airwaves, it is Fox News Channel that is leading the charge as far as cable news is concerned.

This has certainly come as a big blow a blow to CNN, which was hoping to revive its fortunes (ratingswise) in this conflict.

While Fox has been the top-rated cable news channel for more than a year, industry experts wondered whether that lead would hold during a big breaking news story. CNN overtook Fox, for example, on Feb. 1 when the space shuttle disintegrated.

Despite CNN's overwhelming advantage in reporting manpower, more Americans seem to want to watch the war unfold on Fox.

And the reasons are not far to seek. None of that "objective reportage waffle" for Fox. It's the in-your-face flag waving coverage that Rupert Murdoch's network offers and it makes no bones about it. The conservative ideology that drives Fox's prime-time programming is well reflected in its news coverage and the viewers have lapped it up.

While this might lead some to conclude that CNN is down and out, it needs noting that the network that Ted Turner created has seen its own audience grow 53 per cent year to year while MSNBC has seen a 32 per cent growth. The difference of course is that during the first three months of the year, Fox's viewership has grown by 75 per cent over the same period last year, according to Nielsen.

And it doesn't seem to matter matter how far right the network gets, because at the end of the day it is the ratings numbers that justify it all. Sample this: After an Ivy League professor wrote to Fox's Neil Cavuto recently to remind him that he should remain objective when reporting on the current Iraqi conflict, this was the response: "You're a lie, a fraud and an ingrate. Too clueless to appreciate the country that gives you the right to be the Ivy League intellectual Lilliputian you are. And too selfish to be grateful that in this country, even your type can find work."


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