The Passion of SpongeBob
Nickelodeon Puts FOX News Channel in the No Spin Zone

(100% Falafel Free!)

Over the last few years, Rupert Murdoch's FOX News Channel (FNC) has carved itself a spot among the cable networks, especially news. To hear them talk about it, the channel is the most important, most influential, "most trusted" (according to a currently airing commercial), most watched, news network out there. While "important" and "trusted" may be in the eye of the beholder, the influence (though the extent may be argued) is certainly there as the two other news networks, CNN (though it also has CNN Headline News, the main channel is what will be referred to, as it is the flagship) and MSNBC have shown a willingness to imitate some of the successful moves by FOX. And with FNC's stable of prime time "stars" like Bill O'Reilly (whose The O'Reilly Factor is FNC's—and all cable news'—number one show) and Sean Hannity who are also best-selling authors, there is much guaranteed success. FNC is a force to be reckoned with and they give off the impression that they know it and they want you to know it, too—that ratings-wise they knock it out of the park every night.

Not even close. A closer look at the ratings shows something that those of us who'll never grow up always suspected—in prime time and overall ratings, that lovable little goof SpongeBob and his other Nickelodeon friends regularly outdraw FNC. Even that number one show. Over the last year (about March 2003 through mid-May 2004; survey dates below) with the exception of the first month of the US invasion of Iraq—March 2003—when all the cable news networks did well (FNC's average numbers were up anywhere from two to five times—the upper limit based on FNC's highest rating) the Bob and friends, animated and not, have consistently outdone the over-inflated news network.

As has been alluded, despite the title, this isn't only about Mr. Squarepants v. Mr. O'Reilly. This is a look at how a network devoted to younger viewers routinely draws larger audiences, even during prime time, than the serious, "fair and balanced" news network (so "fair and balanced" they had to trademark the phrase—hunt down the transcript from the court dismissal of FOX's lawsuit against Al Franken for a few chuckles). That is the main thrust of this piece. It also puts cable ratings into the big picture with comparison/contrast to regular network television, FNC ratings against other cable networks, and of course, Bob and friends. There's some lighter fare later on, looking at how the two compare using a search engine and book/DVD sales. Then there is an examination (and challenge) of FNC's claim to being on top of the cable news pile.

Though this may be dry or boring and not funny enough, it is truly inspired by the wonderful blissful obliviousness of a little yellow cartoon sponge and the simple, sunny outlook that gets him through life. His show probably does a lot more positive things than yelling, cutting off people's mics, and calling people pin heads. Bill could learn a few lessons from watching Bob. But don't hold your breath. Or gills. However you manage your oxygen intake.

A Pineapple under the Sea: The Topsy-turvy world of cable Television
Before one looks into cable ratings, one should understand a little about them. Nielsen Media Research is the company that is responsible for gathering information concerning the viewing habits of US television viewers. This is done mainly in two ways: the viewer writes down what shows were watched/taped in a "diary" that is later mailed back to the company; also an electronic device that can be connected to the set monitoring viewing. The data is broken down into ratings and shares. The rating is a number representing people with televisions watching a particular program (in its main usage, though it could measure the number of women or people over 50 watching; Nielsen has detailed breakdowns that are not free to the general public). The share is the percentage of possible sets tuned to a particular show. If a show has a 50 share, it means that 50 percent of the televisions turned on are tuned to a particular program. Currently (based on an estimate from September 2003) there are approximately 108.4 million television households in the US, making a ratings point mean a viewing number of about 1,084,000 viewers. A viewer is anyone over the age of two.

Beyond that it gets more complicated (I'm treading water as it is). Fortunately, we'll stick to the regular ratings number and/or the number of estimated viewers (when provided). Nielsen kindly provides both (there were a few glitches during the research that left some gaps—will be explained below).

That said, let's put things in perspective. Being the number one (an issue to be addressed below) cable news network sure sounds impressive and it undoubtedly is in its own context, but is it in the overall picture? No so much.

How does FNC measure up to the regular network news? During May (2004) sweeps, the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw was number one (and had been for ten straight sweeps—20 out of the previous 21). It averaged 8.94 million viewers. All three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) account for nearly 25 million people during their timeslot (6:30-7:00 PM Eastern; times will be listed as US Eastern Standard time). That's a big bag of barnacles. In the splintering world of entertainment/news/sports it might not be fair to put FNC up against the number one show. How about third place CBS and its Evening News (the network and anchorDan Rather—most likely to send hardliners foaming at the mouth like sharks at a chum festival)? 6.98 million.

The weekly prime time (defined as 8:00-11:00 PM) ratings for FNC during May (somewhat inexact given the comparison is for single shows versus FNC's whole prime time lineup)—26 April through 23 May—average rating: 0.9. Perhaps a million viewers (over time the average has been a bit higher; don't just go by a single month). If one really wants to see how low this top cable network is on the food chain we can look at the top prime time shows on the networks. Using the latest Nielsen ratings out today (9 June 2004) that cover the week of 31 May to 6 June, the top rated network show is CBS's CSI (which airs at 9:00 PM on Thursday nights) with a household rating of 10.2 and an estimated viewership of nearly 15 million people. It was also a rerun. FNC's rank: below plankton. Talking Marianas trench low. In fact, the number ten cable show that week, an old episode of Law & Order on TNT had a 2.7 rating and just over four million viewers. The last time a non-special FNC hit that high or higher was April 2003 (regretfully I only have the ratings for the "regular" television season, so from the end of May to the end of September 2003 I can't say for sure), during the fall of Baghdad.

It is true that specials/events help the ratings. FNC scored big for the president's 13 April 2004 news conference (which wasn't aired on the major networks, something that inflated the ratings) beating out the all basic cable programming that week—its analysis also made the top 15 cable programs for the week but sunk behind two episodes of Nickelodeon's Fairly Odd Parents and the Bob, as well as two of Spike TV's WWE wrestling shows, Comedy Central's Chapelle's Show, and our detective and attorney friends over at TNT. All were eclipsed by the king of the (overall) cable ratings HBO's The Sopranos which had 5.8 million to FNC's 3.5 million viewers.

It should be pointed out that despite the current being taken on this voyage, FNC is also routinely beaten—even pummeled—by other basic cable shows/networks. The king of the non "premium" ("pay" channels like HBO or Showtime) cable ratings is Spike's WWE which wins number one or somewhere in the top three nearly every week, only pushed back for other sporting events like college/pro football and special events like baseball and basketball playoffs. For the prime time ratings, besides Nickelodeon, TNT and USA routinely place near the top of the list. Their counter programming is primarily courtesy of Dick Wolf: Law & Order (TNT) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (USA). All of the former are old syndicated episodes and most of the latter (they do second run current season episodes after NBC airs them). TNT balances with basketball games and some other programming. USA usually with movies. ESPN runs from the middle to the top third of the pack and is sometimes joined by the Cartoon Network and Lifetime (programming for "women"). If FNC appears at all, it's in the middle or the bottom of the top 10.

Adding insult to injury, why not see how FNC stacks up to syndicated shows. These are usually reruns of older dramas/sitcoms or gameshows/infotainment/"reality." Again using the most recent ratings as above, the lowest rated show in syndication's top 10 is Judge Judy. A 5.0 rating and over 6.5 million viewers. Dr. Phil makes FNC look lower than flounder with a 5.6 and 7.6 million viewers.

Now it is true that network viewing (including news) is eroding through the diversity of choices and cable news has been steadily growing over the last few years, helped along immensely by the events of 11 September 2001, followed by military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of it is the "24-hour" cycle that allows news any time rather than just during the dinner hour as that time was once called. Another is the talk show style of analysis and commentary that connects with viewers. But when the ratings are looked at, the "Big 3" networks continue to blow cable news out of the water. In June 2003, when the residual rating explosion of the war began to wane (given that people believed it was basically over), CBS news had an average viewership of 6.5 million. That was considered low. That first week of the war, FNC's special report on the Iraq military action got a 5.53 rating (which seems to be its highest of the year). Still below CBS. In fact, that weeks, NBC's Saturday night rerun of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit beat it by more than two points (7.57).

Point is, that being the alleged number one cable news network may be a big thing in its context, in the overall picture it's awfully small. During 2003, all three cable news channels together failed to average five million viewers in prime time, network news stayed close to 30 million—even the morning news was around 15 million. While this may change one day, (there is a slight decline in prime time network news: about -5 million between 1997 and the end of 2003), there is no indication that it'll be anytime soon.

Fine print stuff: what were the parameters of the research
This section is mostly centered on surveys of ratings for "ad-supported cable networks"—i.e., "basic cable" rather than "pay" or "premium" channels (in the overall cable ratings, HBO's The Sopranos is rarely out of the number one spot). Primarily, the comparison/contrast will be between Nickelodeon and FNC but other networks' programming will occasionally be mentioned to further context. Most of the data come from Nielsen/Galaxy Explorer Prime time, archived and sorted at (this site only deals with prime time numbers). Weekly Top 10 or Top 15 detailed numbers for individual programs come from and, respectively (the last two sets of numbers, both from Nielsen, are for the whole day and include premium cable). The site does not round up the ratings numbers so when the hundredths place is used, the data are from that site.

There is more than one survey of the information being integrated into this article. A brief glance at the beginning of the 2002-2003 season, followed by a sort of blow by blow around the outbreak of the fighting in Iraq (March 2003) until the end of that season. There is a bit more detail—and more looks at other cable networks—because the circumstances were out of character with the overall trend of 2003 to 2004 (cutting off mid-May). There is also a look at the final two months (27 October through 28 December) of 2003 that focuses on Nick and FNC, exclusively, showing just how much Nick owns the prime time cable viewing audience, despite November being (at that time) the second worst month for deaths of US soldiers (81) since the start of the war and December being the month Saddam Hussein was captured.

Then there is a look at the top 100 programs overall for the first four months of 2004. And finally, a close look at the two and a half months during which the initial research for this was done (1 March 2004 to 16 May 2004). This timespan included the uprising in Fallujah as well as the two months with the highest number of American deaths in Iraq: 139 in April (one more than the total number killed between the start of the war and the end of August 2003) and 82 in May (edging out November). Given those events, as well as the primaries and start of Senator John Kerry's and President George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, one might expect FNC to regain much of its viewership from the start of the war. That turns out to be false. Never count out the Bob.

Currently, the prime time lineups of the two networks are as follows:
The Fox Report With Shepard Smith 7:00 PM-8:00 PM
The O'Reilly Factor 8:00 PM-9:00 PM
Hannity & Colmes 9:00 PM-10:00 PM
On the Record With Greta Van Susteren 10:00 PM-11:00 PM

The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius 7:00-7:30 PM
Fairly Odd Parents 7:30-8:00 PM
SpongeBob Squarepants 8:00-8:30 PM
Sabrina the Teenage Witch 8:30-9:00 PM


  • The 9:00 to 11:00 slots are part of "Nick at Night" which shows reruns of "family" type sitcoms. During much of the research this included an hour (two episodes) of Full House but the slot also airs other shows (The Cosby Show, Who's the Boss?, for example). Regardless, it is non-original and syndicated episodes of shows that haven't been in broadcast prime time for, at least, several years. (A new half hour animated show coproduced by Bill Cosby, titled Fatherhood is being added the rotation for the 9:00-11:00 period.)
  • While prime time is generally considered 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM, the nature of Nick's offerings makes it more useful to use 7:00 PM as the starting point.
  • Nickelodeon's Friday programming tends to differ somewhat from its Monday through Thursday lineup, sometimes substituting specials or other Nicktoons. FNC sometimes rebroadcasts previous shows by the same lineup. I am not aware of how long this present lineup has been static (FNC has remained the same since the end of May 2003 when I got access to cable).
  • As far as prime time v. prime time goes there may be certain comparison problems with Nick's half hour shows against FNC's hour long shows but the overall prime time ratings are still consistent and the number of Nick shows in the top 10-25 still far outnumber FNC (even if one wishes to divide by two to—crudely—put them on a more even keel).
  • The site has extensive archives but doesn't usually give the day of the week the program drew its audience or estimate the number of viewers. Before 2004, it breaks things down to the top 25 but only the top 10 during 2004. It leaves out the premium channels.
  • Sadly, because of lack of archives for the other two sites, I was unable to get the top shows (whole day) for all weeks for the survey of March to May 2004. Those will be differentiated from primetime.

Final note: this is the long, detailed, boring part for masochists and trivia buffs. For the shorter and somewhat lighter stuff, skip to the later sections. So grab a bag of Krabby Patties—we're headed for rough seas.


Part 1: 2002-2003 season
Looking at the 2002-2003 season (week of 23 September 2002 to 25 May 2003), O'Reilly's show first makes the top 10 during the week ending 3 November with a 1.71, behind both Rugrats and Fairly Odd Parents (both at 2.0). Moving ahead to February, FNC does well with the President's State of the Union Address, coming in at number two and getting a rating of 3.51—less than half of the number 25 on the broadcast network list: FOX's The Simpsons with 8.16. In fact, it didn't even crack the top 100 programs overall. CBS's analysis of the speech scored a 7.1. O'Reilly comes close to cracking the 2.0 level for the week ending 23 February (1.99). Close but no sea cucumber. He also failed to beat out SpongeBob and Jimmy Neutron (2.12 and 2.08, respectively). The next week he was beaten by the Bob and Dora the Explorer.

Mr. O'Reilly finally breaks the surface of the water to the land of 2.0 the next week (2.16). Congratulations. And a round of applause for Mr. Bob who beat him by a stroke with 2.19. Like the nation on its roll to war, O'Reilly followed that up with a 2.23 for the week ending March 16, beating SpongeBob by .03 of a ratings point. And only losing to Law & Order by .01. Things seemed to be looking up for the network. That 2.23 was the same as the average prime time rating for FNC that month—up 145% from March 2002. The next week, the war on Iraq began, the sort of thing that is a ratings gold mine to a twenty-four hour news channel and it was. FNC posted its highest rating for the year (at least during the season proper) with one of its Special Reports on Iraq, hitting 5.53. In fact, FNC held 15 out of the Top 25 cable programs for the week (CNN had 8 and had the only non-FNC program in the Top 10: number 3). The O'Reilly Factor doubled its usual audience, nearly hitting 4.0 (3.92). Interestingly, even with all the viewers attention focused on the war, two of cable's top drawers still made the list: WWE Entertainment at 22 with a 3.04 and Bob tying CNN's Larry King Weekend for 24 (2.88—still higher than O'Reilly's highest rating prior to that week). Then again, as noted above, NBC's SVU rerun had a 7.57.

The next week saw a drop-off of the highest numbers but FNC was still ahead of the rest, with Bill managing a number one spot (3.83) and the network holding 8 spots of the Top 25. Then again, number two was TBS' broadcast of the 2000 Sandra Bullock comedy Miss Congeniality, rebroadcasts of which also took spot eleven and tied for spot twelve. WWE clocked in at 9. Ever the Little Sponge that could, Bob stayed on the list (this time beating Larry King Weekend, though not Larry King Live...damn) at 21 with a 2.28 rating—still higher than Bill's highest prior to the war. That week also saw the appearance of the other heavy hitter FNC prime time shows, Hannity & Colmes and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren at three and five, respectively (both had over 3.0). The next week (ending 6 April) Bill, Sean and Alan, and Greta were one, two, and three, respectively (3.97, 3.26, 3.02). Bob v. Larry? Mr. King was in 18 (Lary King Weekend; Larry King Live was in fifth place) and Mr. Squarepants was 20 (2.13). Curse you Mr. King!

Nearly a month after the war had begun, FNC was still doing well, all three shows still in the Top 10 and O'Reilly on top but news was losing ground. Number two that week (ending 13 April) was The Learning Channels' Trading Spaces: Goes Hollywood (the rebroadcast was also number seven). Two of the top 10 went to sports (NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament on ESPN and NBA basketball on TNT), another to the cable juggernaut that is WWE, TBS with a movie. Nickelodeon had All Grown Up (ninth, 2.42). Bob was at 2.05 and tied at 17 with a TNT original movie. And Larry King Live won again. May you get sand in suit, Mr. King!

The next week, FNC held the top two spots, followed by WWE and Bob makes a return to the top ten (number ten, to be exact—Larry beat him again). The week ending 27 April saw the return to normalcy with WWE claiming the title and Bill slipping to two (2.56). Hannity & Colmes managed to make the top 10 (at ten) but well behind Jimmy Neutron and Bob (four and five, respectively). Then the week when the US was informed of "Mission Accomplished" (1 May), FNC only did well because of the Presidential address (number one with a 3.29) and analysis. Bill (number eight) only ended up one ahead of Bob. Sean and Alan tied Jimmy Neutron at 17 and Greta just made the end of the top 25 list (right behind Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show and All That). It's also nice to see the Cartoon Network's Dexter's Laboratory making it to 16 (beating two-thirds of FNC's power lineup).

The week ending 11 May...SpongeBob regains the lead! His show comes in at 7 (1.81) and The Factor at 8 (1.73). O'Reilly's is the only FNC show that makes the top 25. Seven Nickelodeon shows make it (and four Cartoon Network shows). The sea was full of schools of 'toons. The next week offered another 7/8 split, only this time, O'Reilly's eighth spot is shared by Nick's Hey Arnold. Another Nicktoon, Fairly Odd Parents, rounds out the top 10. One show in the top 25 by FNC and (counting the Cartoon Network) ten shows that are supposed to be primarily for children. If one looks at that key demographic (adults 25-54) O'Reilly fares worse: 18 with a rating of 0.63. WWE is still Lord of the Ring, though (sadly) our Nick friends are nowhere to be seen.

The end of the season (week ending 25 May), FNC's only ratings "giant" drops out of the top 10 and sinks to number twelve, right behind one of the Cartoon Network's broadcasts of The Powerpuff Girls Movie (which also took the eight and 24 spots). Bob was number ten. Mr. King appeared to have been shanghaied.

Part 2: last two months of 2003
A look at the final two months of 2003 (27 October through 28 December) shows Nick gaining ground on FNC, despite the above noted increase of Iraq casualties and the capture of Saddam Hussein. The period runs nine weeks and not once did Nickelodeon not have something on the top 25. Not only that, it had multiple shows every week. Nick has a total of 59 appearances and averaged over six shows each week in the top 25. Its top show was Fairly Odd Parents with nine appearances. It averaged a 2.12 rating. The highest Nickelodeon rating was 2.76 the week of Thanksgiving.

During that period FNC only scored five appearances in the top 25 (four were O'Reilly—reruns of Full House made the list seven times). The network's highest rating was 1.90 for when Hussein was captured. That week Nick had four shows with higher ratings (1.91 to 2.26) with two other shows making the list with lower numbers. O'Reilly's show averaged a 1.55 (FNC's overall average was boosted by the Hussein coverage to 1.62) and his highest rating was during the week ending 21 December with 1.72. That same week Nick had nine shows in the top 25. Of those his show only beat two. Just ahead of O'Reilly's show (with a 1.80) was My Life as a Teenage Robot (and who wouldn't prefer Jenny to Bill?) tied with As Told by Ginger. Of Nick's 59 top 25 appearances during that period, 33 had higher ratings than O'Reilly's highest rating (one tied). Clearly, the powerhouse news network can't hold a Zippo to the Sponge network. Or some sort of electric eel.

An interesting side note is that for ages 25 to 54, neither network had a top 25 appearance. Not so surprising for a network aimed at children or young teens. What's FNC's excuse? Had the bends? Seasick much?


The established pattern holds for 2004, though looking at the top 100 rated shows each month (January through April), FNC looks somewhat better than it did at the end of 2003. A note on the top 100: it includes the overall (broadcast and non-premium—often referred to as "ad-based"—cable) prime time ratings. In no case does cable actually make the top 100 during those four months but also provides the ten highest cable shows and their position in the ratings. The top cable show each month averaged 158.5 out of the top television shows. January was good to FNC because of the State of the Union address, analysis, and one of the Democratic primary debates. The address had a 3.08 and came in third, after two college bowl games, for cable, 171 overall. Bob did do better than the other two FNC shows (2.40 to 2.19 and 2.18), but they beat out Fairly Odd Parents (2.05). What was at the bottom of the top 100? A tie: NBC's Ed and ABC's Celebrity Mole Yucatan, both with a 5.25.

Neither network made February's list as cable's top ten was taken up by five spots for TNT's coverage of various NBA All-Star Game activities and ESPN had the Pro Bowl.

March had four Nick shows: SpongeBob (second, with a 3.21), Fairly Odd Parents, All Grown Up, and Jimmy Neutron. No FNC show made it on the top 10 cable list (meaning no show had a higher rating than Jimmy Neutrons's 1.86). Number 100 on the main list was FOX's Malcolm in the Middle with a 4.90.

April was also better for FNC due to the (rare for Bush) presidential press conference that put them at the top of the cable stack with a 3.22 (number 150 out of the top 100), though its analysis (which in its "fair and balanced" way did not include any democrats) was beaten by Nick's Kids' Choice Awards and WWE Entertainment. SpongeBob also made the list in sixth place (175 overall). For perspective, CBS' Saturday movie made number 100 with a 5.03. Or worse: FNC's high rating was more than doubled by the number 52 show: ABC's The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour which had a 6.71. That's a fine kettle of fish.

Now we take a look at the period of 1 March to 16 May 2004. As far as network prime time ratings (not individual shows), during those eleven weeks, Nick held the number one ratings position three times and number two six times. The highest average rating was 2.11 (overall average was 1.85). FNC's highest position was seven (five times). It did make the top ten each time though twice in tenth place. Its highest average rating was 1.16, overall average about 1.0 (six times the ratings were below 1.0).

Perhaps more interesting is a look at the top 10/15 cable ratings (the top 15 aren't archived and a few were missed making the top 10 necessary to supply the details). This includes the whole day, not just prime time (and some of the sources include premium cable). And its far worse for FNC. Sharkbait bad.

Top 15 whole day ratings
(Of the eleven weeks surveyed, I don't have the whole day ratings for four: weeks 2, 3, and 8 and only the top ten from weeks 6 and 11.) During week one, Nick had 10 of 15 spots in the (all) cable top 15 and carried both the one and two positions—both were Bob with his top rating being 3.8 (4.11 million viewers). Both were in prime time. Week four had Nick with 10 of 15 spots again, its highest position being a three-way tie for fourth with a 3.0 rating. The shows were Fairly Odd Parents, HBO's Deadwood, and the Bob. The Odd Parents had the largest audience with 3.22 million viewers—as well as holding five chart positions by itself (Bob had four). Week five saw the Sponge Posse claiming 7 of 15 spots, the highest being a tie with Spike's WWE Raw for a 3.3 rating. The Bob drew 3.57 million viewers. What about O'Reilly? Or Hannity & Colmes (to rip off an Al Franken typographical joke)? You won't see them. Must not have their sea legs because FNC simply cannot get a hold on the ratings. There are only three instances where it cracks the top ten (cannot vouch for the top 15 for the missing weeks). Bill does make it once. But that's in the next section.

Week seven is the second and third appearance of FNC in the top 10. Neither are a regular shows but both are primetime: the presidential news conference and its analysis, taking spots two and ten, respectively. The conference with its 3.2 and 3.49 million viewers (the show tied with WWE Raw Zone) was easily whacked by HBO's Sopranos which had a 5.4 and 5.84 million viewers. The conference actually made number 77 on the top 100 for all broadcast and ad-supported cable, though still a third of a ratings point behind ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. And its analysis was beat by three Nick shows (Nick had 4 out of 15 slots). Two episodes of Fairly Odd Parents and Mr. Squarepants. The top Nicktoon (the "Parents") had a 3.0 and 3.27 million viewers. That's it for FNC. Gone like a skittish squid.

Weeks nine and ten had Nick getting seven and eight out 15, respectively. Both times it hooked the number four spot as its highest position on the chart. Week nine was Bob (3.2, 3.43 million viewers) and week ten was a special, the Jimmy Timmy Power Hour—characters from Jimmy Neutron and Fairly Odd Parents switch worlds—(3.20, 3.44 million viewers). Jimmy/Timmy's Saturday showing also made the top 10. Trivial note (aren't they all?): Two different sources have it "Timmy Jimmy" but the DVD/VHS of the show sold by Nickelodeon has it the other way around. Strange happenings beneath the sea.

Top 10 whole day ratings
For the weeks where I only have the top 10, the story remains the same. Week six has Nick with 3/10 and a wild five-way tie for sixth place. SpongeBob, Fairly Odd Parents, WWE Raw, Fairly Odd Parents, and MTV's Real World XIV all with a 2.8. Bob had the edge in viewership with 4.14 million (over half a million more than FNC's largest audience for the whole period). Rounding out the survey, Nick takes two out of ten with an almost as wild four-way tie for seventh: Fairly Odd Parents, FX's Nextel Cup race, BOB, and WWE Raw Zone. All had a 2.9, Bob had Nick's largest audience with 4.2 million.

Top 10 primetime
First: neither network has a single appearance in the top 10 for the 25 to 54 age group (I'm in that demographic). Some people have no taste (it should be noted that the WWE scores high on both lists—advertisers take note).

Second—for some perspective—the average rating for the number 100 show each week was 2.24. Nick's average high weekly rating was 2.40. FNC—with only three appearances, so make of it what you will—nets 2.69. It would be more impressive if the average didn't mostly rely on two specials. See, O'Reilly did make an appearance during the second week. But he only got a 1.65. Tied with the Saturday movie on Lifetime. More importantly is the absence of FNC making the top 10 cable list week after week. One may recall from above that the November-December ratings average for FNC was 1.62 and O'Reilly's 1.55. Once again, the high water mark was set by a special rather than a nightly show and this information is for single shows—as noted above the weekly average has Bob and friends was 1.85 to FNC's 1.0.

How does the 2003-2004 season break down? Nick took second with a 1.57 average, FNC was ninth with 0.94 (down from 1.36 the previous season). Nick's ratings were up from 1.37. So who's left holding the bag of clams? The O'Reilly crew over at FNC.

What do ratings mean? They don't measure the quality of the show. Nor do they measure popularity. As the Nielsen site explains, "The TV rating is only the simplest and most democratic measure of the audience: how many people watched." But perhaps that can show something about these two networks. O'Reilly is a popular pundit without a doubt. But he also gets ratings from people who despise him and his views. SpongeBob, on the other hand, probably has few (if any) viewers that watch because Bob makes their blood boil like water over a steam vent. Sure there are probably parents watching with their children who don't know or care who Squidward or Tommy and Chuckie are. Maybe some even hate that damn silly Sponge.

But (granted, this is speculation—an educated guess) it's highly probable that the vast majority of the Nick audience is watching because they like the shows, while a certain percentage of the FNC lineup watches because it irks them or they're playing watchdog or just like yelling at the TV (guilty under the three strikes rule...). And those parents don't seem to be skewing the ratings given neither network does that well among the 25 to 54 age group.

If my suspicion is correct, then good. I'm not sure I want to live in a country where Bill is more popular than Bob. Clown fish are cooler than piranhas. Maybe it's just me.

Fun with Google!
How can popularity be judged? Hard to tell for sure since it's a difficult thing to quantify. I tried anyway. Over the course of two months, I used Google to see how many hits our subjects received. The dates were 18 April 2004, 18 May 2004, and 20 June 2004 (it was originally meant to be over one month but the time spent working on this allowed a third attempt which should give better averages—for what it's worth). Should be obvious that this means of looking at the topic has some of the same problems as the ratings above. It should be pretty easy to realize many of FNC's or Bill's hits might come from sites that view the subjects negatively or hold a more neutral attitude. Then, again, despite the number of FNC people who have books out (O'Reilly's own website also offers flags, towels, baseball caps, pens, jackets, umbrellas, door mats, coffee mugs, license plate holders, paper weights, tote bags, "The 'Spin Stops Here' Organizer Briefcase," and "Boycott France" bumper stickers), many SpongeBob hits will be for merchandise.

Also as with the ratings, given the amount of people searching or mentioning FNC and its lineup who either like or hate them (or neutral mentions) one might expect good numbers versus children's cartoon shows (no matter how many older "never grow up" types might like the show). For fun before the main part of this section, I checked both i hate spongebob and i hate o'reilly (date: 26 June 2004). The former did get 38,800 hits and the latter 90,700. Congrats Bill, you're in the lead. Or maybe there are just other O'Reillys that people hate. Dunno. Still amusing.

So, head to head, how do Bob and Bill match up? "Bill+O'Reilly" averaged 182,666 (insert Book of Revelation joke here), quite respectable. SpongeBob? 1,620,000. Lop off a million hits and he still out-swims Bill by more than three to one. To make it harder, I tried "spongebob+squarepants", the full name should drop the numbers and it did. To 475,000. Still over twice what Bill got. The show's name "o'reilly+factor" ("the" omitted) didn't even hit 100,000 (just short of 96,000).

Squidward, Bob's...sorta friend had a 17,433 hit average. Just slightly worse than FNC's "neil+cavuto" who had 17,566. A couple things, it is true Cavuto, who ostensibly hosts a week day business/finance show (Your World with Neil Cavuto), as well as a weekend business show—(both sprinkled quite liberally—yeah: ha, ha—with his opinions on world affairs and an odd teenage-like fascination with models, particularly of the Victoria's Secret variety) is not on prime time it airs in the afternoon after the stock market closes. But he's just such a tool (okay: cheap shot, I admit it). The more interesting thing is that the numbers are somewhat skewed due to a book he wrote that was released 1 June 2004. In fact, the June number (23,500) was over 8,000 higher than the two previous checks. Perhaps he's just suddenly more popular. Though less so than the name of where Bob lives: "bikini+bottom" got 24,233 (which also beats the phrase "no+spin+zone" by 667).

What of FNC's other heavy hitters? "sean+hannity" gets a little over 113,000 hits but the show "hannity+&+colmes" gets only 45,600, significantly less than "fairly+odd+parents" which nets 71,166. Cut down to "hannity+colmes" (something one hopes never to see carved onto the side of a tree), you only get 870. The more neutral Greta van Susteren, whose On the record keeps losing to sitcom reruns on Nick is in the Squidward range with 17,600. Slightly better than Cavuto and her book came out way back in August 2003.

Why not compare Shepherd Smith, anchor of the Fox News Report? A search run on 20 June 2004 found 4,220 hits and he wasn't even the number one link returned (the law firm of Shepherd, Smith, and Andrews was number one). That'd just be flogging a dead sea horse.

Other than for fun, none of this means a whole lot, however interesting it might be. Search engine hits can change dramatically over time in both directions. This is just a snapshot over a short period of time. But one that makes FNC look like they're taking on water with a map to Davy Jones's locker. Or not. Still entertaining.

Traveling down the Amazon
Using the dates from the previous section, I searched Amazon to see how those FNC authors are doing. Quite well, no doubt helped by the amount of hawking down on their respective shows, plus the free copies given out to certain emails they like. Interestingly, quite a few of the hosts' books, as well guests and "contributors" are published by HarperCollins (or an imprint of the publisher), owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (as are both broadcast and cable FOX networks).

One might recall that the talking head stars of the network condemned CBS for airing the 60 Minutes interview (coinciding with the publishing of his book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror) with former terrorism czar Richard Clarke and not mentioning that his publisher (Free Press) was an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which like CBS is owned by Viacom. Turns out FNC does it all the time. Cavuto, Hannity and Colmes, Van Susteren, Fred Barnes, Steve Forbes, Oliver North, Bill Sammon, Dick Morris, Newt Gingrich, John Gibson, and probably others (plugged in some of the names on the FNC website bio page on; 26 June 2004) have all put out one or more books under the HarperCollins name or (in nearly every case) one of its imprints (usually ReganBooks). To my knowledge this has never been pointed out in an interview (yes, they go on each others shows to hype their books).

Nor is it noted that News Corporation publishes The Weekly Standard which has a number of hosts/analysts/guests on its staff. How many? A lot. From the current masthead (, the editor and executive editor William Kristol and Fred Barnes make the list. Also: Stephen F. Hayes (currently making the rounds on FNC and elsewhere to sell his book The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America...which just happens to be published by HarperCollins), Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer, John Podhoretz, all of whom have bios on the FNC site. Additionally, I've seen contributing editors Tucker Carlson, David Frum, and Robert Kagan as guests. Probably others.

On the other hand, O'Reilly does not have any books out through HarperCollins and Michael Moore's Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! is published by ReganBooks (an irony that probably warms the cockles of his heart).

SpongeBob's books are many and sell well but nothing like O'Reilly or Hannity's. The best-selling one, which seems to be the SpongeBob trivia book, sits around number 40,000 in the sales rankings. O'Reilly's rankings numbered from under 1000 (the re-release in paperback of his steamy novel Those Who Tresspass: A Novel of Television and Murder was the highest with 756) to into the multiple 1000s (the ranges for his older books tended to fluctuate quite a bit). Bob doesn't come close. But the DVD of the first season of SpongeBob Squarepants was under 1000 two of three checks (1226, 788, 832). While comparing DVDs to books is inexact, it does seem interesting that the price Amazon sells the DVD for is more than three times that of Bill's book and the DVD was released in October 2003 as opposed to ...Tresspass... which came out in February 2004.

A look at Al Franken's (or as O'Reilly calls him: "Stuart Smalley") two books critical of the conservative movement shows him blowing away the FNC authors. His most recent (which particularly targets FNC), Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (released in August of 2003) was under 100 on the sales ranking list (48, 74, 42) and a check on his Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations (released in January 1999) was at 1,177 on 18 May (2,075 on 26 June). Five and a half years after its initial release. Best-selling news hosts? Yep. But not unbeatable. And I suspect that the cartoons will have a longer shelf life. Your kids will watch SpongeBob. Maybe their kids. Bill and Sean will be forgotten.

We're Number 1!
FNC does have great ratings (compared to other cable news). It even declares itself "the number one name in cable news" (commercial that aired 16 June 2004) and notes that its morning show (the only news network that feels it necessary to have a full-blown morning zoo crew style broadcast—"Fox and Friends," aping the big three networks' morning shows) "beats CNN and MSNBC combined" (commercial that aired 21 June 2004). So FNC must be number one, right? Not necessarily.

To start, there's really only two 24 hour news channels on cable. MSNBC airs very little news from Saturday morning through Sunday evening (about eight hours—barring breaking news or special news events—total), instead airing multiple episodes of National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, MSNBC Investigates (documentaries featuring pop culture, history, or newsworthy stories), and Headliners & Legends (biographies of celebrities and newsmakers; actually pretty well done—they all are).

But MSNBC can pretty much be dismissed as its ratings are far lower than either of the other two (though its viewership tends to be younger, meaning a rise in ratings would attract advertising dollars based on the more favorable demographic—then again, maybe they're just watching the shows about serial killers or celebrities). In fact, on 21 April 2004, lightning struck the Atlanta headquarters of CNN in the afternoon causing them to lose audio (not picture) for almost 25 minutes. During that time, the audience dropped from 420,000 to 121,000. During that same period, MSNBC (with audio) managed 139,000 viewers. But CNN also kept twice as many viewers in the 18 to 34 category. This leaves FNC and CNN (which run a few rebroadcasts but mainly show new material—all three rebroadcast their weeknight prime time lineups later the same night).

Another thing to remember is that these news channels actually don't have nearly as much "news" as they suggest. The bulk of the programming tends to be shows analyzing, giving commentary, and full of general punditry about the news (or current events). When FNC says that "we report, you decide," it's a bit disingenuous given that the majority of actual reporting comes via the "crawl" at the bottom of the screen and the few minute newsbreaks on the half hour. CNN is pretty much the same (as is MSNBC) though less punditry is involved and the shows are less personality driven.

And that's a key thing. A lesson taken from talk radio. People don't just tune in to Rush Limbaugh for the ideology or the humor (in some people's eyes) but to hear him. A personality, a character they listen to every day. Same with O'Reilly. Not just a matter of issues or point of view but because he is a sometimes charming, very skilled talent at what he does. Even (perhaps, especially) when melting down, it's entertaining. The same thing on a show without a "name" host would flounder.

Because the ratings don't really track shows that are under a half hour (technically, Nielsen does track for more specific things like this but they are not available free to those of us making Krusty Krab wages), people who check in to see the recap or watch for an updated crawl aren't counted, giving more weight to the personality-driven shows of which FNC has many. This means that televisions at airports or hospitals or restaurants that show CNN simply aren't counted (on the other hand, our local Culver's restaurants have FNC playing silently while you eat).

To hazard a further explanation, the numbers used to get a rating are an average of the number of viewers tuned in each minute. As noted, this gives greater weight to viewers to watch for longer periods, allowing fewer viewers to create higher ratings. FNC clearly is the winner with 1.02 million viewers to CNN's 665,000 (for the year 2003). There's another number, the "cume" (cumulative total) that measures the total number who watch a channel for at least six minutes during any given day. The cume weights all viewers equally whether they are just checking the headlines or watching a favorite commentator's hour-long show.

Not that having loyal viewers willing to watch longer chunks of programming is a bad thing or that the numbers aren't valid. But it is important to caveat assertions like "most watched" when it's only half right. If you look at CNN's cumes, they typically outpace FNC by 20 percent. During the height of the early days of the Iraq war (April 2003) the difference was significant: CNN commanded about 105 million throughout the course of the day, while FNC had 86 million. The difference in the regular ratings was less than 1.5 million. In a ranking for the week ending 9 March 2003, FNC was averaging 1.6 million during prime time, holding second place (TNT was first with 1.8 million and Nick third with 1.4 million; all three numbers rounded). But a glance at the total day, the difference is striking. Throughout the day, Nick averaged 504,000 viewers, FNC 8,000. More painful for Bill and Co. is that the TV Guide Channel averaged 10,000 that week.

In a report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (October 2003), it found that when asked what their primary news source was, 17% said FNC, while 20% said CNN. A few months earlier (July 2003—even closer to the start of the war) CNN was picked by 27% to FNC's 22%. This may have changed since the report but it shows that FNC's self-proclaimed dominance (at that time already considered common knowledge) is not quite accurate. One might say the claim was a little fishy.

Pretend there's a whale of a good ocean-themed gag here.

Triumph of the Sponge
What does all this mean? Maybe not a lot. Too many words and too much time and effort to make a little point. An amusing (perhaps) attempt to puncture the balloon of pretension. To poke fun at a network's inflated self-importance. And to remind viewers that talk of being number one means little without context (and not just by appending "-in cable news" to the statements).

And, I suppose, it's a celebration of the Sponge. A show that doesn't inspire yelling at the screen no matter how money-obsessed Mr. Krabs is or how annoying that squirrel is or how...good-naturedly empty-headed Bob is. Hard to condemn it for the breakdown in civil discourse (the "sentence enhancers" from the brilliant "Sailor Mouth" episode aside). No one bloviates (O'Reilly's term for what he does) and viewpoints aren't distorted. The show makes you happy or smile, even laugh. Maybe if Nick sent a goodwill ambassador over to FNC....

So: Bob meet Bill. Bill meet Bob.

Sources (not listed above):
"The State of the News Media 2004" (section on Cable TV),
"The Ratings Mirage: Why Fox has higher ratings—when CNN has more viewers" Extra! April 2004
"Silence Is Golden for Lightning-Struck CNN" Washington Post (for information on primetime/total day ratings for the week ending 9 March 2003; link now inactive)
A life wasted watching television.

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