With Fox News’s Ratings in Free Fall, the Future Looks Bleak

The sudden death of Roger Ailes (R.I.P.) yesterday is a grim omen for the network he envisioned and built.  In the wake of the recent upheavals at Fox News, the conservative cable television network’s ratings are experiencing a precipitous decline from cable news leadership for the first time in the history of the channel. As the rest of the mainstream media continue their efforts to undermine and “resist” the Trump Administration, this development bodes ill for the future -- not only of the unique kind of fair and balanced if right of center reporting pioneered by the Fox News Channel (FNC), but of the prospects for conservatives continuing to have a major media platform, maintain power, and advance their agenda in the months and years ahead.

The Fox News Channel launched on October 6, 1996. MSNBC, originally a collaboration between NBC News and Microsoft, had started three months earlier. Prior to mid-1996, CNN, the other competitor, was the exclusive cable news outlet in the United States, synonymous with “cable news.” It enjoyed a long monopoly in the field during which it was able to build its brand at home and abroad.

Lacking the backing of a huge well oiled news organzation like NBC or the tailwind legacy of a sixteen year international presence like CNN, FNC initially had a bit of a shaky start. But under the guidance of media and political genius Roger Ailes (the FNC CEO and Chairman), the financial support of international media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and with a clear agenda (“fair and balanced” reporting with a consistent respect for conservative viewpoints), after gaining wide cable and satellite  distribution, Fox pulled ahead of its two rivals. By 2002, FNC had done the unthinkable, establishing itself as the #1 cable news channel in the United States. Notwithstanding its being constantly derided by the rest of the mainstream media, Fox News’s prime time ratings dominance went largely unchallenged for the next fourteen years.

The Fox News Channel’s innovative and successful approach to presenting the news in the new millennium helped to change the TV news landscape from one dominated by breaking hard news read by mostly interchangeable news readers to a model that relied on opinionated marquee personalities and colorful left/right debate. Prime time personalities Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, for example, both of whom debuted on FNC the night that it started, continued to host programs in prime time, seemingly in perpetuity. CNN’s “breaking news is king” strategy, and its aging prime time host Larry King, were caught off guard.

For its part, the ill-conceived MSNBC floundered during its first decade. The channel’s original plan for some kind of interactive cable TV-online collaboration with Microsoft (one of MSNBC’s early prime time shows was the laughable nightly tech program The Site with Soledad O'Brien) was soon scuttled, and it experimented with both left and right wing hosts and anchors (Phil Donahue, Keith Olbermann, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, and even Michael Savage for a short time) before settling on a hard left approach that corresponded with the rise of Barack Obama in 2008.

The seventeen month campaign trek of Donald Trump from his announcement on June 16, 2015 to his election victory appeared to institutionalize Fox’s hegemony. FNC, it was widely assumed, now had its man in the White House and it had helped to put him there. Ironically, what happened during the first Republican candidates’ debate on August 6, 2015, carried exclusively on FNC, presaged the channel’s eventual decline.

The debate was co-hosted by Fox News’s newest star, prime time anchor and special events coverage co-anchor Megyn Kelly.  Her first question, directed to Trump, was provocative and incendiary:

Kelly: “Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don't like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’”

Trump: “Only Rosie O'Donnell.”

Kelly: “No, it wasn't. Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

In a flash, Fox News’s popular celebrity anchor had thrown down a gauntlet, unfairly in the opinion of many, right in the face of a candidate who was quickly gaining attention and momentum with conservatives – the core of the FNC audience – and in the very first Republican debate of the 2016 election season seen by a record 24 million viewers!

The ensuing undercurrent of bad feeling between Trump and Kelly – often breaking out into the open on social media – dragged on for months. It soured many viewers on Kelly and diminished her appeal as the attractive and smart face of Fox News.

Megyn Kelly, 2013

In May 2016, sporting her new New York sophisticate look,

Megyn Kelly, February 2016

Megyn Kelly Vanity Fair February 2016

Kelly supposedly made up with Trump for a much-hyped, hour long prime time Fox broadcast network special. The forced détente, however, seemed fake. Later in 2016, Kelly wrote negatively about Trump in her memoir Settle for More, for which she was paid around $11 million according to deadline.com. In  interviews to promote the book, Kelly said that she felt such fear during 2016 that she and her husband hired or were provided with armed bodyguards to protect her and her family from perceived dangers arising from her to-do with Trump.

The Women of Fox News

“The on-air dynamic of an older, not necessarily attractive, male authority figure and his lovely female guest (look, she’s beautiful and smart too!) is such a trademark of Fox News” opined LA Times television critic Lorraine Ali in an April 6, 2017 Times feature story “Scandal, sexism and the role of women at Fox News.”

Indeed, anyone with eyes and sensibility had to take note that very early on the Fox News channel was appealing to male viewers with a lineup of very attractive young women correspondents, anchors, and guests who, as Ali noted, were “smart too!”

The Women of FNC's Outnumbered with guest Newt Gingrich
Susan Smith, Harris Faulkner, Melissa Francis, Andrea Tantaros

As Chelsea Schilling writes at WND (May 2, 2017), “It’s no secret that Fox News has some of the most attractive female hosts in the business, and many fans have become accustomed to seeing beautiful, leggy women deliver the daily news. In fact, Google searches of almost every woman on Fox News reveal scores of images of the lady-hosts boldly baring their long legs.” Writing at Breitbart on April 27, 2017, Daniel Flynn refers to Fox News as a “hot-women-only cable news culture.”

It’s possible to draw a fairly straight line from the provocative, sex-fueled shakeup of tabloid news in England 47 years ago by Fox News founder and News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch to the success of FNC soon after its launch in 1996. In 1970, Murdoch, one of the 20th century’s most audacious and successful media moguls, then the new owner of the British daily tabloid The Sun, approved the publication each day on page 3 of the paper of a photograph of an attractive young woman, usually blonde, completely naked from the waist up. Despite initial public disapproval and periodic protests, the practice continued for over four decades. According to an article about Page 3 at BT.com, circulation of The Sun doubled to 2.5 million one year after the launch of the graphic Page 3 photos.

A G-rated version of this formula, adapted for the sensibilities of the 1990s and beyond, worked magic on cable TV in the United States when it was employed by the Fox News Channel.

After twenty years of ratings dominance aided by this technique (as well as by the superior reporting on Fox News), cracks began to emerge. In June 2016, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America (and Stanford University graduate), was removed from her daily afternoon show and on July 6 she filed a lawsuit against News Corp, and FNC CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. On September 6, it was reported that Fox had settled with Carlson for $20 million, and paid off several other FNC on air talent females who had made allegations of harassment, as well. After News Corporation hired a law firm to investigate Carlson’s allegations, Ailes was forced out as the head of Fox News on July 21, 2016.

Megyn Kelly, meanwhile, FNC’s most prominent on air female talent, played a key role in Ailes’s departure from Fox News when she reported to the law firm investigating Ailes that she, too, had been sexually harassed by him.

Notwithstanding these newsworthy controversies and the subsequent executive reshuffling at the top, FNC managed to maintain its #1 ratings position through the 2016 elections and into the New Year. For the time being, the channel’s successful on air schedule remained intact. Throughout 2016, Kelly had been increasingly criticized but not only for her apparent hostility to Trump. She appeared to be focusing and reporting increasingly and obsessively on herself and changing her appearance and persona from a smart, girl-next-door type to a cold and calculating feminist icon-wannabe. In a July 19, 2016 article at Breitbart, Matthew Boyle quotes a “top Fox News host:”

“If Fox wants to become the ‘all about Megyn Network,’ that’s fine. We stand with Roger [Ailes]. And real anger has emerged that the so-called Megyn incident [alleged sexual harassment by Ailes] happened 10 years ago. The consensus among the hosts and contributors is: ‘Why didn’t she say anything then? Really, the same woman that posed half naked in GQ? The same woman on Howard Stern saying what?’”

Boyle then quoted “a second top Fox News Channel host” who said “If Megyn Kelly wants to leave, we are fine with that. Good riddance.” After Kelly finally left FNC on January 6, 2017 to move to NBC, Tucker Carlson, her replacement at 9 PM ET, garnered even higher ratings. (All times cited in this article are ET.)

Helping FNC’s new Tucker Carlson show to maintain FNC’s top ratings position at 9 PM was the lead in, Bill O'Reilly’s O’Reilly Factor, the linchpin of the FNC prime time schedule that had managed over two decades to build a loyal following of fans addicted to O’Reilly’s nightly “no spin zone” shtick. For 14 years, O'Reilly had the #1 show on all of the cable television news channels – a feat unparalleled in the history of cable TV news.

Bill O'Reilly

His ratings success allowed him to carve out a complementary career as an author of numerous New York Times bestselling nonfiction books, many of which were turned into TV movies with O’Reilly as executive producer. He also helmed a profitable eponymous Web site, apart from the space accorded him at foxnews.com, which sold premium memberships and a variety of Factor “gear” (with the profits reportedly going to charity). Along with frequent Factor guest Dennis Miller, O’Reilly made more than a half dozen live appearances annually at large venues around the U.S. to packed houses.

On April 1, 2017, everything changed. On that day, the New York Times published a lengthy, scathing investigative report about payoffs to a number of women at Fox News totaling $13 million (paid for by both News Corp and O'Reilly personally) to, in effect, buy their silence on allegations that they had been sexually harassed by O’Reilly. Only one of these cases, dating to 2004, had previously been reported on.

The response was quick. Threatned with boycotts, a majority of The O’Reilly Factor’s advertisers began to drop the program, which reportedly brought in between $100 and $200 million worth of advertising sales a year. O’Reilly’s fate – and apparently the network’s – was sealed.

Slow Slide Into Ratings Oblivion

When Donald Trump was sworn in as President on January 20, 2017, the ratings for CNN and MSNBC – both of them in sync with the emerging anti-Trump “resistance” movement – were rising, but still not posing a serious threat to FNC’s commanding lead. For example, on Wednesday February 1, 2017, FNC was #1 in prime time and all day, in both the critically important “demo” (the demographic slice made up of 25 to 54 year old viewers that advertisers covet) and in viewers of all ages. Neither CNN or MSNBC came close.

After the announcement on April 19, 2017 that O’Reilly was out at Fox News, the upheaval in cable news ratings began. After more than 20 years at 8 PM, O’Reilly’s time slot was taken over by Tucker Carlson, who had been on at 9 PM since January 9 after Megyn Kelly left. The five person, banter driven ensemble left/right opinion show The Five, for six years a ratings winner and a tolerable distraction at 5 PM, was moved to 9 PM – a move that  seemed like a questionable programming decision for the centerpiece of prime time. Conservative stalwart Sean Hannity, on at 10 PM, remained in the time slot that he has hosted since he vacated the 9 PM hour in order to make room for Megyn Kelly’s debut on The Kelly File in prime time on October 7, 2013.

In the wake of O’Reilly’s departure less than a month ago now, and the prime time shakeup that ensued, Fox News’s ratings have started to sink. Shockingly so. Emblematic of the new ratings picture, on Monday, May 15, 2017, the only FNC program between 4 PM and 12 AM that won its time slot in the critical 25-54 demo was the new ensemble show The Specialists at 5 PM. The ratings for total viewers (all ages) were slightly better for FNC, but that metric is not the one that determines advertising rates. It’s also accountable to the older age of FNC viewers. Meanwhile, on May 15, MSNBC won the night. On Tuesday, May 16, 2017, CNN won the night, with FNC coming in third in the prime time demo.

The new success of CNN and MSNBC – the exact opposite of the ratings picture only one year earlier (see, for example, the complete cable news ratings for Thursday, May 12, 2016) – is accountable less to anything tangible that has been attempted lately at CNN or MSNBC and more to the disarray at Fox News. The prime time schedules of both CNN and MSNBC have been fairly stable for the past several years – Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper, and Don Lemon at CNN (7 PM to 12 AM) and during the same hours at MSNBC, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and the rehabilitated Brian Williams. Needless to say, all eight of these individuals are on the left end of the spectrum politically.

A Perfect Storm

It is becoming clearer each day that the absence of the O’Reilly Factor from Fox News’s prime time schedule is quickly and ominously having a disastrous domino effect on the entire network’s evening ratings, and on the popularity of many of the channel’s non-prime time programs, as well. O’Reilly’s consistent #1 ranking at 8 PM provided the strong lead in that helped to keep the 9 and 10 PM FNC programming hours at or near the top of the cable news rankings.

The loss of Bill O’Reilly, however, is only a part of a perfect storm that seems to be engulfing the troubled network. Media wizard Roger Ailes is no longer the guiding hand at the helm of FNC and News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch is ceding more day to day authority to his heirs, sons James and Lachlan, who are widely reported to be much more more liberal than their father. Under the influence of this new guard, News Corp’s executives were therefore prone to unceremoniously dump O’Reilly less than three weeks after the damning New York Times article appeared rather than stand and fight the politically charged accusations against him. (It should be noted that O’Reilly, who continues to assert his innocence, has never had his day in court to confront and defend himself against his accusers, some of whom remain anonymous.)

In the ominous “demographics is destiny” area, much of FNC’s audience is literally dying out. Recent ratings surveys have put the age of the average Fox News viewer at 68 or older, while the average age of CNN’s and MSNBC’s viewers is about a decade younger. In an article titled “Stop Beating A Dead Fox” in NY Magazine (February 3, 2014), Frank Rich, no fan of right of center politics and conservative media, gleefully notes:

All three cable-news networks are hemorrhaging young viewers (as are their network-news counterparts) in an era when television is hardly the news medium of choice for Americans raised online and on smartphones. But Fox News is losing younger viewers at an even faster rate than its competitors. With a median viewer age now at 68 according to Nielsen data through mid-January (compared with 60 for MSNBC and CNN, and 62 to 64 for the broadcast networks), Fox is in essence a retirement community.

In addition to FNC’s deflated ratings, long time viewers are noticing subtle and troubling changes in many of Fox News’s programs. Right after the November 2016 election, for example, the must-see weekly segment on Sunday evenings of the “Political Insiders” featuring renegade Democrat pollsters Patrick Caddell and Doug Schoen and Republican former member of Congress John LeBoutillier – who provided chillingly accurate and memorable independent analyses of the political landscape and the public’s mood that ultimately led to outsider Donald Trump’s victory – disappeared from the schedule without explanation.

More and more of the oft appearing Fox News “contributors,” who reportedly are paid as much as six figures a year for their on-air analysis, are from the left of center camp, including two recent hires – Marie Harf (former Obama Administration State Department spokesperson) and Jessica Tarlov (Democrat pollster and analyst who enthusiastically hews to her party’s line). Meanwhile, foul mouthed, bloated Democrat party hack Bob Beckel was re-hired back from CNN to resume co-hosting duties at The Five and now has a prominent platform each night in prime time while left of center attorney Eboni Williams is emerging as the lead host of the new daily 5 PM FNC show The Specialists, which appears to have downscaled the role of articulate conservative co-host Eric Bolling (the third co-host is the Libertarian millennial comedian Kat Timpf).

Kat Timpf 2016, Co-host of FNC's The Specialists

On a personal note, as a longtime media observer and critic, I had grown increasingly weary in recent years of The O’Reilly Factor and the host’s arrogant “bloviating” and off-putting, know-it-all manner. But O’Reilly’s absence now and its after effects are a lesson in the need to be extremely careful in what one wishes for.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has “widened its probe into Fox News over money it paid to women who said they were sexually harassed at the network.” New lawsuits alleging harassment are pending and a number of African American employees have come forward with allegations of racial discrimination at Fox News. Anchor Kelly Wright, who is African-American, announced a lawsuit against Fox News for alleged discrimination on April 27, 2017.

Where all of this goes remains to be seen. I think, and I fear, that it is safe to say that the salad days of Fox News that made it a major positive influence in our political and cultural lives may be behind us.

Peter Barry Chowka is a seasoned journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care.