Benjamin Svetkey and Josh Rottenberg
September 17, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Just how many NASCAR dads are there, anyway? Or have scores of swing-vote soccer moms and girlyman liberals started watching the Fox News Channel now too? That’s the big debate inside TV newsrooms following the Republican National Convention, during which Fox News scored an unprecedented ratings upset, finishing No. 1 among all networks, both cable and broadcast, and drawing some of its biggest audiences ever (7.3 million, roughly a quarter of the entire national TV viewership, for President Bush’s Sept. 2 speech alone). Of course, one explanation for the boffo ratings is that the conservative-friendly channel had an obvious ideological advantage. Where else on the dial would red-state patriots tune to watch the GOP slam-down? PBS? CBS? Al-Jazeera? ”It’s really a matter of Fox preaching to the choir,” says one producer from a competing network.

According to Fox News, though, it wasn’t merely droves of Bush backers choosing its ”fair and balanced” coverage — it was a wide cross section of the American public. ”I hear grumblings in various quarters that [the ratings were up] because we’re biased for the Republicans,” Fox News anchor Brit Hume tells EW. ”But the numbers are too big for that to be a good explanation.”

Those numbers were impressive even when Bush wasn’t speaking. On Aug. 31, for example, 5.2 million people flipped to Fox News for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech, compared to 5.1 million watching on NBC, 4.4 million on CBS, and 4.3 million on ABC, with CNN and MSNBC each drawing less than 1.5 million. ”[Other networks] just don’t get it,” says Hume. ”They’re losing [their] audience, but it couldn’t be their fault. It couldn’t be that we’re doing something right and they’re doing something wrong.”

Fox News, however, didn’t attract such crowds to its coverage of the Democratic National Convention in July. During Bill Clinton’s speech, only 1.4 million turned to Hume’s network, while 2.5 million watched on CNN. Those numbers, some people would say, prove that Fox News hasn’t broadened its audience beyond its conservative core.

Who’s right? Hey, we just report — you decide.

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