NEW YORK -- Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have eagerly fed a public hungry for war news, 24 hours a day. What happens when that hunger subsides?
Cable news networks face the same question whenever a big news story runs its course. Their audiences will get smaller -- that's the safest bet in town -- but each has reasons for optimism looking ahead.
"People spend an inordinate amount of time and they get hooked on the story, whether it's O.J. or Florida or whatever," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson. "When they sense that the drama or the suspense is over, then they almost rebel -- 'I'm not going to watch any news for a month, I am so sick of news' -- and the ratings take a nosedive."
In another month, Sorenson said the ratings should be back to prewar levels.
By most measures, each of the three networks were winners during the war. MSNBC's audience increased 357 percent prewar and postwar, while CNN's went up 305 percent and Fox News Channel 239 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"I think they all came through," said Andy Donchin, an analyst for the ad-buying firm Carat USA. "I think the public got the information that they needed."
The war coverage minted new stars: Fox's correspondent, ex-Marine Greg Kelly; MSNBC's ironman anchorman Lester Holt; and CNN's swashbuckling embed, Walter Rodgers.
Fox pulls top ratings
Fox maintained its status as the top-rated news network throughout the war, something of an upset considering many observers believed CNN's greater resources would enable the older network to vault back into the lead.
Fox's flag-waving coverage struck a chord, considering polls showed a solid majority of Americans supported the war, said Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast department at Northwestern University.
While CNN couldn't recapture the lead from Fox, three-fold ratings increases are nothing to sneeze at. CNN usually has more people than Fox tuning in over the course of a week; Fox's averages are higher because their viewers stay longer.
"I'm very pleased that CNN has achieved such a large audience push," said Teya Ryan, general manager of CNN/US. "I think that's impressive."
MSNBC's increase was the most dramatic, in part, because it was so far down to begin with. But the network, making full use of its NBC News resources, has been sharp in breaking news.
MSNBC has used wartime to start a new prime-time lineup, with Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough as hosts. Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's planned show remains on hold, however.
Cable news for big stories
The ratings may also indicate that television viewers are becoming much more comfortable with the cable news networks as a place to turn during big stories. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news broadcasts, cumulatively, haven't seen wartime boost their ratings very much.
In a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 39 percent of Americans say they feel as if they "can't stop watching news about the war."
But there are signs that may be running its course.
The Pew survey found nearly four in 10 Americans saying the news media is focusing too heavily on the war, with many saying other stories like the tax cut debate or the economy aren't getting the attention they deserve.
"I think that people are going to be, in the immediate future if they haven't already, starting to look for alternatives," Angotti said. "I know I am. I feel overexposed to the war and I think most people feel the same way."
Sorenson said MSNBC is making it a point to slip in other news at least every half-hour. CNN is trying the same, with an in-depth piece on SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, for example.
Donchin, who advises advertisers on where to place their commercials, believes that more young people are getting in the habit of watching the news and that at least some of them will stay after the war is over.
"Do I expect the viewership interest to continue?" CNN's Ryan asked. "No. I mean, let's be realistic. That's not unusual. Very little in our lives rises to the intensity of war."
Even as the war winds down, however, the news executives say it is providing both important news and compelling television.
"This isn't over by any means," Ryan said. "We've got some pretty serious fighting still going on. I don't know about you, but I feel it's an extraordinary story."