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Analysis: TV news is realigning, with Fox’s ratings sagging and CNN’s soaring


A realignment in TV news is under way. Fox News Channel’s ratings have sagged ever since Election Day. And CNN’s ratings have surged to historic levels.

These shifts are related, but complicated. It’s not as simple as “X is up so Y is down.” People who don’t normally watch a lot of cable news are looking for reliable information about the pandemic, the presidential transition and the terror threat. CNN is benefiting and Fox is not.

Furthermore, a big chunk of Fox’s base audience was demoralized by Trump’s loss in November and disheartened by the pro-Trump riot last week. Fox’s average viewership levels are about 20% lower than they were before the election, even though overall TV news viewership is elevated due to the current combination of crises.

A certain amount of short-lived audience erosion was expected for Fox in the event of a Biden victory, since the channel and its viewers were rooting for Trump.

Fox is also under pressure from the right like never before, with channels like Newsmax and One America News chipping away at Fox’s core audience.

But this shift is bigger than Newsmax — and it’s longer-lasting than many TV observers anticipated.

The scoreboard

For Fox, it’s extremely discomfiting not to be No. 1 all day, every day. Fox’s lineup of right-wing talk shows — a rage-fueled alternative to CNN, MSNBC and nightly newscasts — has made the network all but untouchable for most of the last two decades. Fox has wielded its No. 1 status the way a controversial head coach touts a championship.

But now, all of a sudden, it can’t point to the scoreboard anymore. Since the day after the election, CNN has been No. 1 in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that the cable news business is built on.

Fox’s audience has always skewed older, so Fox has always had total viewer bragging rights, even when CNN notched victories in younger demographics. But for the past nine straight days, CNN has also been No. 1 in the total viewer race.

This surge has been driven by the big news out of Washington, from the insurrection to the impeachment vote. January 6, which began with Senate runoff news and continued with the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, was CNN’s most-watched day in its history.

MSNBC has been No. 2 many days, benefiting from some of the same factors but not nearly to the same extent.

This month to date, CNN has averaged 2.08 million viewers throughout the day; MSNBC has averaged 1.74 million; and Fox has averaged 1.41 million. Even in prime time, when Fox is at its strongest, it has been stuck in third place. Already, CNN’s post-election victories have enhanced CNN’s position in the marketplace. The network has been running “MOST WATCHED CABLE NEWS NETWORK” ads on the air this week.

So when you read about Rupert Murdoch reasserting himself at Fox, when you hear about schedule changes, when you see far-right rhetoric overtaking news coverage, the context is Fox’s sudden fall.

Some Fox fans are turning off the news altogether

Where have Fox’s fans gone? Networks frequently conduct audience research, so Fox probably has a pretty solid answer to that question. Fox sources say that some viewers have sampled Newsmax, yes, but many have just chosen to turn off the news altogether. They’re watching Hallmark, HGTV or Netflix instead.

I asked Hofstra communications school dean Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News and MSNBC executive, for his analysis on what has happened to the Fox base. He wrote back: “Tristan Harris famously said that social networks are about ‘affirmation, not information’ — and the same can be said about cable news, especially in prime time. But for the conservative media ecosystem, just what should be affirmed has suddenly become an existential question.”

“The unified wall of support for Trump has splintered after last week’s assault on the Capitol,” Lukasiewicz said. “Republicans are disagreeing with Republicans on the most basic questions: Should Trump be impeached? Should he be convicted? Does he bear responsibility for what happened? I suspect traditionally conservative audiences are bewildered and confused. Confusion is certainly apparent among many conservative media producers and commentators — trying to find their footing as the story of the Capitol assault, and the President’s reaction, keeps getting worse.”

True — and let me just add, Fox is covering the daily revelations about the scale of the attack a whole lot less extensively than CNN or MSNBC. Fox is focusing on what it calls “Big Tech censorship” instead, but I strongly suspect that most people want news about the terror threat right now, not Twitter. Frankly, many Fox shows are running away from the news rather than reporting on it.

Five possible reasons for Fox’s struggles

Colby Hall listed his theories in this new Mediaite story. First: “A historic news cycle — for the competition.” Second: Fox’s decision to de-emphasize the news division “in favor of more opinion programming.” Third: The opinion shows going “all-in on conspiracies.” Fourth: Fox being “outflanked on the fringe right by OANN and Newsmax.” Fifth: “Message fatigue.”

The big unknown: How long will this last?

No doubt some Fox fanatics will come home in the coming weeks, as Fox will serve up a steady diet of anti-Democrat stories. Historically, when crazed news cycles calm down, so do CNN’s ratings. But the ratings data could also portend a more permanent shift in audience habits. That’s one of the big questions in TV news circles right now: How long will CNN remain ahead of Fox?

Another question: Is this realignment bigger than cable? CNN has also out-rated the broadcast networks (NBC, ABC and CBS) during across-the-board special coverage of the Georgia runoff races, the Capitol riot and the impeachment debate. During Wednesday’s floor debate and vote, CNN was easily No. 1, with 3.8 million viewers in the afternoon, while the other networks each had 2.6 million viewers or fewer. It is a striking thing to see at the tail end of the Trump era, after four years of “fake news” slings and arrows, many of them directed at CNN.

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

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