We all know the stereotypical Fox News viewer (at least as the Mainstream Media presents them in pop culture): older, bourgeois, angry, white, male (think Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino). To be sure, elderly Baby Boomers of a particular race and socio-economic standing do comprise a large share of Fox News’ traditional audience. Yet, the bulk of Fox’s audience is tuning in for the conservative, ideological pretensions. With the recent shakeup at Fox, this fact was apparently missed. Indeed, Fox is intent on playing identity politics over ideological politics as it seeks to maintain an audience. As you’ll see, this is a serious mistake.
According to a 2012 Pew Research survey, “fully 60% of Fox News viewers describe themselves as conservative, compared with 23% who say they are moderate and 10% who are liberal.” Additionally, another Pew report from 2013 claims that, Fox’s prime time lineup ratings “declined 6% from the previous year.” Of course, as the report noted, Fox still had a larger audience than all of its cable news competitors combined. But, more ominously, the report concluded that “there is some evidence of a ceiling for audience growth. Fox has not increased its median evening viewership since 2009.”
Things changed in 2016, however, when Fox proudly reported that they were “the most-watched network in all of cable for the first time in [their] history.” During 2016, Fox “averaged 2.4 million viewers in primetime and 1.4 million viewers in total day―up 36 percent compared to 2015.” But these numbers were totaled during a year that saw a highly contentious presidential election and it wasn’t only Fox’s numbers that increased. CNN experienced a bumper crop in 2016 for ratings also. The entertainment factor of the 2016 election was a major reason behind the increase in cable news viewership, but so too was real interest in Donald Trump. It seems that the former reality TV star is good for everyone’s ratings.
What’s more, the extraordinary numbers Fox enjoyed were tallied before the Murdoch family decided to kill the goose that laid the golden egg by firing Bill O’Reilly. You see, even with the loss of Roger Ailes (who was the ideological godfather of Fox); even having lost long-time staple, Greta Van Susteren to MSNBC; even with rising star, Megyn Kelly, opting to bail out of Fox amidst the claims of corporate lasciviousness (and for a much bigger payday at NBC); Bill O’Reilly remained. Indeed, The O’Reilly Factor consistently brought in a few million viewers per day over the course of many years.
In many respects, Fox was The O’Reilly Factor. Without a viable replacement for that program, the network is losing steam. Initially, the network seemed excited about the first wave of talent flying the coop. When Greta abandoned her 7 pm time slot, she was temporarily replaced by Brit Hume, whose ratings were infinitely better than Greta’s. When Megyn Kelly was replaced by Tucker Carlson at 9 pm, he maintained stellar ratings. Much like Notre Dame’s football program after having let Lou Holtz leave without much of a fight, the powers that be at Fox determined that the institution of Fox News made the network successful, rather than the contributions of specific individuals. Fox’s leadership assumed they could remove top tier talent, replace them with anyone, and still retain high ratings. So far, they’ve been proven wrong.
Bill O’Reilly’s strength was in his ratings. Even if every advertiser in the world threatened to boycott The O’Reilly Factor (which they didn’t), Fox retained such a large audience from O’Reilly that those advertisers would happily air their commercials during the other Fox programs before and after him (which, of course, they continued to do).
When the New York Times reported that Fox had paid upwards of $13 million in sexual harassment suits to Bill O’Reilly’s accusers over the course of a decade, advertisers started boycotting O’Reilly. The Murdochs understandably feared that their bottom line would be hurt. And, to be sure, the more Liberal disposition of the Murdoch sons played a role in removing O’Reilly as well.
Bill O’Reilly’s strength was in his ratings. Even if every advertiser in the world threatened to boycott The O’Reilly Factor (which they didn’t), Fox retained such a large audience from O’Reilly that those advertisers would happily air their commercials during the other Fox programs before and after him (which, of course, they continued to do). Further, those advertisers were content to pay the higher fees to broadcast those commercials on Fox (because they knew those advertisements reached larger audiences). So, ultimately, the Murdoch’s bottom line was not actually harmed at all by the boycott.
Crucially, no one else at Fox could bring in O’Reilly’s viewership. Alas, perception is reality. The world that the Fox corporate leadership exists in is the elite Manhattan social bubble. In that world, Fox is something ugly and shameful. O’Reilly was the most offensive of all. The amount reportedly paid out to O’Reilly’s accusers was simply bad form, and illustrated the purported PR problem that Fox was apparently suffering (again, their ratings told a different story).
So they did the primetime shuffle again at Fox. This time, O’Reilly was out, Tucker was in, Martha McCallum took over Greta’s 7 pm slot, The Five was moved to 9, and Hannity remains. (though his future there may be in doubt). Yet, something very funny happened: the most recent ratings indicate that the only person pulling their weight in primetime ratings is none other than than Sean Hannity―the pro-Trump fixture leadership seems to be targeting. Neither Tucker nor The Five are anywhere near where they should be. Consequently, Fox has suffered its worst ratings decline in years. In fact, it even lost out to MSNBC in the ratings wars!
But how could this be? After all, the average Fox viewer is elderly, white, and middle-class—in other words, the average Fox viewer is dying, according to the popular narrative. No corporation wants to see their customers die out. And, given today’s popular perception, those who comprise Generation-X and the Millennial Generation are far more Liberal than their elders in the Baby Boom generation.
Rupert Murdoch, like (the now deceased) Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and the majority of the Fox audience are dinosaurs. They are literally dying. The vaunted 25-54-year-old demographic—the Gen-X and Millennial crowd—is the must-have demographic for any network looking to dominate the television landscape today. This is the demographic that most advertisers will pay top billing for (and it’s also the group that will be around the longest). Thus, the network that retains a majority of these folks, over the longest period of time, will be the most profitable.
When a highly successful corporation, such as Fox, fundamentally alters its brand it does so for one of two reasons: either to make up for lost profit, or to ensure profits over the long-term. Since Fox was not losing profit, the latter must be true.
The Murdoch sons are Gen-Xers who live among the Manhattan billionaire class. Their entire worldview is informed by the Liberal Mainstream Media and Pop Cultural narrative. Given that the statistics indicate that the Gen-X and Millennial Generation are the more Liberal generations, the Murdoch sons wanted to push out all of the old, fuddy-duddy conservatives who appealed to Baby Boomers. Instead, Fox 2.0 will be populated by younger, slicker, less offensive GOPe types, who could also woo the increasing share of moderates and Liberals in the audience.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. After all of the shuffling, Fox actually lost the crucial 25-54 year-old demographic! Most analysts claim it is because Fox and Donald Trump’s ratings became entwined: as Trump’s popularity plummets, Fox’s does also. But, that’s a dangerously reductionist view.
Could it possibly be that people—of all ages and races—were attracted to Fox because of the ideological factor? Remember, 60 percent of Fox’s viewership is conservative. Also, a majority of Americans identify as “conservative.”
Renowned historian, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz, is fond of telling me that unless an institution is avowedly conservative, it will inevitably be annexed by the Left. He’s correct. And, with so many other networks being consistently more Liberal (compared to Fox), why would anyone opt to watch a network undergoing an identity crisis, of the sort that Fox is currently suffering?
The Murdochs miscalculated. They clearly believed that they would get the jump on their competition by abandoning their seemingly older, conservative viewers in favor of preemptively courting the more Liberal Gen-X and Millennial viewers. Could it be that there are far more Rightists in the supposedly “Liberal” Gen-X and Millennial cohort than previously thought?
In fact, the interesting (and possibly overlooked) point here is what these numbers may portend. For too long, analysts (particularly Baby Boomers) have insisted that my fellow Millennials and I were hopelessly Leftist. While the more rabid Left-wing elements of my generation do get the most screen time whenever they perform an idiotic or rude political stunt, these Fox ratings indicate that my generation is nowhere near as overwhelmingly Liberal as the media would have you believe. What’s more, large swathes of both my generation and the Gen-Xers clearly enjoyed the original Fox prime time lineup. Now that the original lineup has been dismissed, my generation is flocking away.
The Murdochs miscalculated. They clearly believed that they would get the jump on their competition by abandoning their seemingly older, conservative viewers in favor of preemptively courting the more Liberal Gen-X and Millennial viewers. Could it be that there are far more Rightists in the supposedly “Liberal” Gen-X and Millennial cohort than previously thought? Please note: the same people making the claims about overwhelming Leftism in the Gen-X and Millennial cohort also insisted that Donald Trump was unelectable.
Of course, many skeptics will point to changing media consumption patterns among my generation as a reason for the ratings drop. That is certainly a factor. But, if record numbers of Gen-Xers and Millennials were tuning into Fox before the big primetime shakeup, could it be that they’re flocking to alternative, conservative sources of news, rather than the more Liberal cable news outlets now? Is my generation, in fact, more conservative than previously thought? I believe so.