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CNN: Not All That Bad a Network When There's Real Political News

Well, here's one surprise coming out of last night's mid-term elections: CNN, the long-time laggard in the cable news race, came in second (although a distant second) to Fox News. TV By the Numbers is reporting that Nielsen's overnight ratings (think of them as a less perfect version of the final ratings), show that 2.4 million people watched CNN during primetime, as opposed to 1.9 million for MSNBC -- oh, and just shy of seven million for Fox News.

That Fox News proved a juggernaut -- with 40 percent more viewers than the other two combined -- shouldn't surprise anyone. On a more typical night, like two Tuesdays ago, Fox News was still far-and-away the ratings winner. On that night, the network had a total of 2.4 million viewers in primetime, while MSNBC had almost a million; meanwhile, CNN -- no doubt affected by the dismal ratings for Parker Spitzer at 8 p.m. -- had slightly more than half a million.

So why was last night such a (relatively) good one for CNN? Probably because election night is when the less partisan viewers actually tune in. All told, 11.3 million people watched cable news last night -- even though Dancing With the Stars was on! -- while two Tuesdays ago, the total for the Big Three of cable news was only 3.9 million. (In fairness to Dancing with the Stars, 12 million people watched it last night, which, yes, means that more people were interested in tuning in to hear the fate of Bristol Palin than of candidates endorsed by her mother.)

So, while the Republican tide lifted all cable news boats, CNN had the most outsized performance compared to its usual self. It was doing Fox News numbers last night -- while Fox News was busy doing numbers that bested NBC -- you know, an honest-to-God broadcast network.

What can we take away from this? Not much that we didn't know already. Like the fact that CNN does a lot better when there's actual -- rather than fabricated -- political news to cover.