Newspapers may have had a tough go in ’08, but cable news nets had a strong year. Why did cable outperform virtually every other news organization last year? The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the Media report chalks it up to CNN, Fox News and MSNBC focusing more time on the presidential election than almost anyone else. Of course, keeping those viewers after the election is a challenge. Early ’09 audiences are slightly above where they were one year ago, suggesting that the nets may retain some, but not all, of last year’s viewership.

While the Big 3’s traditional evening newscasts scored twice as many viewers than the average primetime cable audience last year, some cable nets outperformed the broadcasters for the 1st time during key events, such as the political conventions. Particularly heartwarming for cable: 10% more people said they regularly turned to cable news rather than network for national and international news, compared to 1% more who said they preferred cable in 2002, Pew said. Over all, the median audience for cable news across all 3 cable news nets in prime grew by 35%, to 3.64mln, its highest point ever. The median daytime audience also grew by 17% from the year before, with a record 1.86mln tuning in to the 3 channels during the year.

The cable nets devoted about 59% of their news hole to the election, while media overall devoted about 36% to the presidential race, Pew found. The ailing economy accounted for 10% of cable news airtime—a third less than the 15% average of other media outlets—and the Iraq war plummeted to only 2% of the news hole from 15% in ’07.

Pew also found differences among the 3 major cable news nets, identifying MSNBC as heavily politically focused with 72% of its coverage across all timeslots devoted to the election. That compares to 55% at CNN and 52% at Fox News. CNN tended to cover more immigration news than the others, while Fox had more crime stories.

As for how the 3 treated Obama and McCain, it followed the stereotypes. MSNBC ran a slightly higher percentage of positive Obama stories than all news media (40% vs 38%) and it ran far fewer negative Obama stories (16% vs 27%). 75% of McCain stories were negative vs 57% generally, while 9% were positive vs 14% in the news media overall. The reverse was pretty much true at Fox, which tallied 43% negative Obama stories and 24% positive ones. Positive McCain stories were above the average at 22%, while negatives were below at 38%. CNN was more in the middle, actually running more negative Obama stories than the media average (36% vs 27%) and following the average on negative McCain stories (59%).

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