A cable news network? Run by Fox? Going up against long-established CNN?

When Fox News Channel debuted in 1996, many were scratching their heads. It seemed like such a crazy idea.

Now? Not so much. Fox News overtook CNN in the ratings in early 2002, and it just marked a decade as the most-watched cable news channel.

"It has been quite a ride," said Bret Baier, host of the network's nightly "Special Report" program. "No one really knew what Fox News Channel was. When you said `Fox,' people would ask, `Isn't that the "Simpsons" network?'"

In 2011, Fox News had the 13 highest-rated cable news programs. Baier came in at No. 3. Meanwhile, CNN's most-watched show, "Anderson Cooper 360," ranked 17th.

Oh, yes, things have changed.

"We're excited, but it's tempered," said Michael Clemente, the network's senior vice president of news. "Everybody knows it's almost harder to stay in first than it is to get to first."

`They know us'

There's a strong bond between Fox News and its viewers you won't find elsewhere on the TV dial. That, Baier said, is one key reason why the network has done so well.

"Their TV is on Fox News Channel 24/7," he said.

Baier's not exaggerating. The channel had to animate its logo several years back after some hardcore fans reported that a ghost of the old, stationary one had burned itself into the bottom corner of their TVs.

"It's a refreshing thing for them," said Megyn Kelly, host of Fox News' "America Live" program. "They walk away feeling better informed."

There's also, however, a vocal contingent out there who have branded Fox as a right-leaning news organization - a claim that doesn't mesh well with its familiar "Fair and Balanced" slogan.

"It's easy to paint with a broad brush if you don't watch," Baier said. "When I hear that from someone, I ask them to watch my show - or Shepard Smith's show - for three days and then email me back.

"Ninety percent of the time, they do write back, and they'll say, `Yeah, you're right.'"

Hiring former Alaska Gov. and one-time presidential hopeful Sarah Palin intensified criticism for a bit, but Clemente pointed out that Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat, was on the Fox News payroll for almost a decade.

"It's easy to ding the front-runner," he said.

Some critics, Clemente said, also fail to distinguish between the news programming that dominates the channel's daytime lineup and the opinion-focused shows that air after dark, such as No. 1-rated "The O'Reilly Factor."

"It's a very clear format," he said, likening the network's primetime lineup to the separate opinion section found inside a daily newspaper.

Familiar faces

Lineup changes are the norm at MSNBC and CNN. Stick a new host in a new time slot and hope for the best, ratings-wise.

Fox News, meanwhile, has had many of its key players in place since the very beginning. That, many network insiders believe, is another reason it has been the cable news leader for 10 straight years.

"People come up and start talking like they know me," said Baier, who helped sign the network on, running the Fox News Atlanta bureau out of his apartment for a time. "You're in their homes. You're on during dinner."

"I get a lot of emails from my viewers," Kelly said. "There aren't two versions of me. My on-air personality is my off-air personality."

But it's another veteran, founder and CEO Roger Ailes, who deserves most of the credit, Baier and Kelly said.

"Roger Ailes is a genius - and I'm not just saying that because he's my boss," Baier said. "He has an active hand in everything we do."

"He has an eye for a diamond in the rough and, when I arrived, I was definitely rough," Kelly said.

And with Ailes and others planning to stick around for years to come, all signs point to continued ratings success.

"We're not going to sit still," Clemente said. "We're going to push forward and stay fresh."

gdinges@statesman.com; 912-5987

Top 20 cable news programs in 2011

1. `The O'Reilly Factor,' Fox News

2. `Hannity,' Fox News

3. `Special Report with Bret Baier,' Fox News

4. `The Fox Report with Shepard Smith,' Fox News

5. `On the Record with Greta,' Fox News

6. `The Five,' Fox News

7. `Your World with Neil Cavuto,' Fox News

8. `The O'Reilly Factor,' Fox News (repeat)

9. `America's Newsroom,' Fox News

10. `America Live,' Fox News

11. `Studio B with Shepard Smith,' Fox News

12. `Fox and Friends,' Fox News

13. `Happening Now,' Fox News

14. `The Rachel Maddow Show,' MSNBC

15. `The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell,' MSNBC

16. `The Ed Show,' MSNBC

17. `Anderson Cooper 360,' CNN

18. `Nancy Grace,' HLN

19. `Hardball with Chris Matthews,' MSNBC

20. `Piers Morgan Tonight,' CNN

Source: Fox News