Next year could be a critical one for CNN in the battle for second place, if the final 2011 cable news ratings are any indication.
Now fully in for 2010, the Nielsen numbers show Fox News safely ensconced in the top spot – a place it has now occupied for nearly 10 years – but the gap between its two counterparts narrowing.
MSNBC maintained its dominance in primetime, besting CNN during the three-hour block in the adults 25-54 demo for the third straight year (242,000 to 222,000) and in total viewers for the second straight year (775,000 to 689,000).
But CNN, coming off its worst year in more than a decade, rebounded slightly, maintaining its lead in total day viewers (479,000 to 435,000) and reclaiming the total day demo (160,000 to 148,000).
2011 was still the network’s second-worst year this millennium, but an improvement over a far more troublesome 2010.
The jostling between the two rivals escalated in the second half of the year as CNN seemed to finally surge in September and October, notching a rare win in the demo during primetime -- much of that because the network hosted more of the often-incendiary GOP debates.
But by November, after flipping Lawrence O’ Donnell and Ed Schultz in its primetime lineup, MSNBC was back on top, even passing CNN in total day viewers.
MSNBC President Phil Griffin has spent the past year championing his network’s triumphs over CNN and trying to refocus the narrative on chasing Fox.
His network has ascended over the past few years, propelled by a shift in identity – it is now a home for “progressives” – and by the 2008 election. Its goal for next year: to chip away at Fox’s heavy suit of armor.
It won't be easy. Though Fox’s viewership declined by 8 percent this year, its top 11 shows still drew more than a million viewers – a threshold nothing on MSNBC or CNN crossed.
That MSNBC still trumpets its victories over CNN more than it compares numbers with Fox signals that its older rival remains a concern, particularly in an election year.
CNN, meanwhile, has had its own inner struggles. In the past year, it has changed presidents – from Jon Klein to Ken Jautz – and remade its nightly lineup – hiring Piers Morgan and Erin Burnett while waving goodbye to Larry King and Eliot Spitzer.
Yet 2011, replete with international news, lifted the network just in time for an election year.
Last time there was a presidential election, CNN posted its best ratings ever. This time around, it will find out whether it has found a winning formula.
One would have to imagine that CNN has a new show in mind for primetime, where it remains weakest. Anderson Cooper still airs at both 8 p.m., where he finished in fourth place, and 10 p.m., where the show excels.
On the plus side, Cooper's 8 p.m. numbers improved upon those of his predecessor -- "Parker/Spitzer," which then became "In the Arena with Eliot Spitzer" -- but its detractors can note that Piers Morgan has not ushered in the ratings surge some hoped for when he replaced Larry King at 9 p.m..
However it shakes out, this year’s ratings are a prequel. Though popular enthusaism for the 2012 election may fail to match the heights of 2008, there will be no greater test of the balance of power.