It hasn't gotten a lot of attention - for understandable reasons - but television history was made last week at the Republican National Convention. For the first time, a cable news network beat the broadcast networks - NBC, CBS and ABC - in convention coverage. Fox News, which has a reputation - fair or not - of tilting to the right, also whipped rival cable news channels CNN and MSNBC.
About 7.3 million people tuned in to Fox to hear President Bush's acceptance speech on the last night of the convention, compared to second-place NBC, which attracted 5.9 million. The three previous nights, the viewership wasn't that large, but Fox still beat all the other networks hands down.
Fox's unexpected triumph is especially shocking when you consider it reaches 25 million fewer households than the broadcast networks. Also curious is the reaction of the broadcast networks to the Fox coup.
There was certainly no congratulations for a job well done - rather, it was all sour grapes. Reuters quoted one unnamed major network official as saying the GOP convention in New York was a "made-for-Fox event."
If that were true, then the Democratic National Convention in Boston a month earlier was a made-for-network event. Although fewer total viewers - 20.4 million - watched the Democrats' convention than tuned into the Republican convention - 22.6 million - the broadcast networks did outdraw Fox in the DNC coverage.
No one at that time contended that the network ratings were the result of "partisans" listening to views only they agreed with. Yet that's what CNN and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz had to say about Fox's ratings knockout.
What really has the networks gnashing their teeth isn't just their upset defeat at the hands of upstart Fox, but that the event highlights the "democratization of the news," and whether that's good or bad depends on which news outlets you trust.
If you're a Dan Rather, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw fan, you're going to trust the traditional broadcast networks the most. If you trust Brit Hume and Shepard Smith more - and really believe that Bill O'Reilly is "looking out for you" - you'll find Fox "fair and balanced."
But perhaps the most significant aspect of Fox's GOP convention win - and most frustrating to the networks - is that Rather, Jennings, Brokaw et al are no longer the final arbiters of what's news and what's not. Indeed, many viewers see their newscasts now as propaganda for the left.
For instance, if the networks had had their way, they would have swept under the rug the 250 or so Swift boat veterans who doubted the extent of John Kerry's Vietnam heroics. Fox News forced the mainstream media to deal with that story. And it's the mainstream media that's forcing Fox and others to deal with the mud that's being thrown at President Bush over his Texas National Guard service.
It's negative and ugly news, but it's competitive, and that makes for better, more comprehensive news coverage.