MSNBC Beats Fox News in Overall Viewers; Panic Time?

Last week, MSNBC took first place in the cable-news ratings war for the first time since the network debuted 21 years ago. They not only defeated Fox News in the key 25-54 demographic, but also in total viewers. In fact, FNC didn’t even come in second in prime-time. They finished third behind CNN — something that hadn’t happened since the year 2000.

The primary reason for the newfound success of NBC News’s decidedly progressive cable-news branch was described by Bernie Goldberg in a recent piece. Bashing President Trump over his often embarrassing and controversial antics is good for business.

Trump’s crassness and almost daily displays of dishonesty throughout the election convinced much of the American public that he simply can’t be trusted, and that it is especially important to hold him accountable, now that he is our president. Thus, troublesome allegations against him (even baseless ones) are immediately entertained and exploited. And there is no one more enthusiastic (and often less responsible) about doing it than far-left members of the mainstream media.

Fox News has obviously gone a different route, largely establishing itself as a pro-Trump outfit (at least on its editorial shows). The movement in that direction began about two years ago, when several of Trump’s personal friends (including Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling, and Laura Ingraham) used their FNC platforms to effectively promote his candidacy. When the novelty and outlandishness of the Trump campaign turned into television gold, and Fox’s obsessive (and increasingly positive) coverage of it acted as a ratings sugar-rush for the network, more on-air personalities fell in line.

Over time, a re-branding effort of sorts softened the network’s emphasis on conservatism. Instead, Trump-normalization became the central theme. Even Bill “No Spin” O’Reilly was firmly on board, carrying water for his buddy, Trump, to the point of absurdity.

For a while, Fox’s new direction proved to be quite profitable. In fact, 2016 was the network’s most-watched year to date. Even the first quarter of 2017 still had the Fox on top (though steadily losing ground). But with Trump (now as president) continuing to feed his critics ammunition to pummel him with, the network’s tone evolved again. The shift was noticeable even before Fox unexpectedly dropped O’Reilly, a longtime ratings juggernaut.

Rather than pro-Trump commentators devoting all of their time to defending the indefensible (an exhaustive practice with this president), political deflection became the new theme. Taking a page out of Trump’s campaign playbook, hosts began using the “counter-punch” strategy as the basis for their analysis. Tucker Carlson (who took over O’Reilly’s time-slot) has led the charge, focusing his nightly efforts almost exclusively on examples of liberals acting horribly or hypocritically. This includes a nightly segment where he mercilessly wails away on a liberal guest who doesn’t seem to understand why they were asked onto the show in the first place.

Sean Hannity has taken things a few steps further, expanding his show beyond Trump sycophantism, and into the realm of hair-on-fire conspiracy theories. In fact, for the past several weeks, Hannity has been trying to convince his audience that the unsolved murder of DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was carried out by Democrats trying to silence Rich from leaking information to Wikileaks. This theory was debunked soon after it began, but Hannity has continued on with it, much to the dismay of Rich’s family who has been pleading with him to stop politicizing their deep loss.

On The Five, any criticism of something Trump did is immediately answered by one or two of the hosts with an example of a liberal doing something similar in the past. The shtick has gotten quite stale.

With the notable exceptions of Special Report and Fox News Sunday (which remain two of the best news programs on television), Fox News shows have become more about going after Trump’s detractors than they have about analyzing the Trump presidency and world events. This may be perfectly fine with our president’s base, and also with a good chunk of conservatives, but it doesn’t draw in (or enlighten) a broader audience.

That’s not to say that the Left’s hypocrisy and clear media biases aren’t legitimate issues worth exploring and exposing. They are indeed. But they shouldn’t be the primary focus of a serious news network. If you’re negligent in actually covering the news, people are going to go looking for it in other places (even if they’re not entirely happy with the alternative product).

Can Fox News recover? Absolutely. In fact, the network’s ratings are still historically quite strong. And being that they lost three of their top stars over the past several months (Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren), one would think they’d be in much worse shape. But executives at the network can’t ignore the rising success of their competitors. Fox News is losing the appeal it once had with viewers who aren’t deeply partisan, and they’re losing that appeal quickly.

The tribal sugar-rush has about run out. It’s time to start thinking about a long-term plan for renewing interest and trust among viewers whose appetite for red meat isn’t their primary motivation for turning on the news.

How Will Fox News Fare in the Post-O’Reilly Era?

bo2With the sudden departure of top draw, Bill O’Reilly, from Fox News, and a restructuring of the channel’s weeknight lineup, it will be interesting to see how the network will fare.

Tucker Carlson, who has proven himself to be a ratings success in multiple time-slots on FNC, will be taking over O’Reilly’s old hour. The Five will move to prime-time, right after Carlson’s show. Eric Bolling will be hosting a new show of his own in The Five’s old spot (presumably a Keith Olbermann-esque countdown program entitled something like “The Ten Things I Love About Trump”). And Martha MacCallum’s temporary show, which follows Special Report, will become permanent.

Ratings-wise, the network will almost certainly take a hit (at least at first). Over his twenty-plus years at Fox, O’Reilly had built a huge, loyal following of viewers. They tuned in every night, eagerly bought his books, and turned out to see him on tour with the likes of Glenn Beck and Dennis Miller.

Sure, the show had lost much of its “No Spin” claim over the past two years. That responsibility was unwittingly abdicated to regular Factor guests like Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume, and Bernie Goldberg, while O’Reilly himself adopted an unreasonably defensive posture when it came to President Trump (a personal friend of his). But if we learned anything throughout this past election cycle, it’s that a pro-Trump cable-news product isn’t going to lose viewers, and O’Reilly only benefited from his stance in the ratings.

Stephen Battaglio of the L.A. Times wrote in a piece on Wednesday:

It’s no exaggeration to say Fox News Channel’s loss of “The O’Reilly Factor” could be the equivalent of NBC losing its top-rated comedy “Friends” in 2004, which spelled the end of the network’s “Must-See TV” lineup that provided dominant ratings for years on Thursday night.

While that comparison may be a bit overblown, it’s a safe bet that Tucker Carlson (even with a Trump-friendly format) will have trouble maintaining O’Reilly’s level of viewership. O’Reilly had a famously unique style, and appealed to a bit older demographic that might not be as receptive to Carlson. While a younger audience (the coveted 25-54 year-old range) is typically sought after by network executives, the loss of that time-slot’s older viewers (who might just give up on cable-news commentary at the eight o’clock hour) would hurt the overall ratings picture.

This also wouldn’t be ideal news for The Five, as the show could use a strong lead-in (as Carlson had with O’Reilly) while it courts a wider audience than it has had in the afternoon hour. That being said, it’s been a long time since Fox has aired a co-hosted debate program in prime-time (the last being Hannity & Colmes which ended in early 2009). New viewers might just appreciate seeing something different, and with Eric Bolling gone from the panel, the discussions should be more substantive and less sycophantic. Then again, Jesse Watters is taking his place.

As is the case with any rebuilding period, there will likely be some trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. And though Fox News always seems to land on its feet, and lock in their audience’s interest, I would hope that the network (as it moves forward) would also be mindful of the integrity that it has lost along the way.

Fox has always been in the cross-hairs of the legacy media (aka mainstream media) for presenting a conservative perspective on the news, but there used to be a level of seriousness behind the network’s “fair and balanced” mantra. There used to be a far more disciplined effort put forth to provide keen and trustworthy commentary. Unfortunately, that theme has been greatly diminished over the past two years as the network has become increasingly comfortable with portraying itself as a beacon of pro-Trump advocacy.

Though the channel’s serious journalists (mostly out of the Washington Bureau) have remained fair and true to their profession, the commentary-wing has grown increasingly shameless in its (sometimes admitted) obedience to the leader of the free world. Base-pandering and intellectual dishonesty have been tolerated beyond acceptable levels, and if that’s truly the only way for Fox News to pull the kind of numbers that it wants and expects,  the network has far worse problems on its hands than figuring out how to adjust with the loss of Bill O’Reilly.

Broken Slate