The latest quarterly Nielsen ratings reveal a promising trend in cable news viewership. This has been a challenging time for all media and, while cable has been relatively stable, it has not been immune from a general advertising slump and softening audience.
While all three of the major cable news networks suffered primetime declines, MSNBC held its audience best, losing only 6% in the past quarter. By comparison Fox News dropped three times as much (-19%), and CNN collapsed (-40%).
CNN’s woes are not particularly surprising. They have utterly failed to define themselves in this era of advocacy journalism. Their approach to a middleground, news-centric broadcast is admirable, but poorly implemented. If they were truly interested in focusing on straight news, they would abandon the pretense of balancing every story on the basis of partisanship and instead balance it on the basis of truth. In other words, stop booking liars just to have a counter-argument. If one guest says the moon is a barren, rocky satellite, you do not need an opposing guest to assert that it’s lime Jello. Or if you do host the lime Jello spokesman, at least offer some post-debate analysis that makes it clear that the Jello argument is known to be false.
MSNBC has benefited in an ironic way by not having had a meteoric rise. Their numbers have been depressed by poor cable coverage and placement on premium tiers. As a result, they have had less distance to fall. Their performance appears to be better on a relative basis simply by maintaining a steady course.
More surprising is the precipitous drop at Fox News. They have been enjoying a surge in the past few years, even when their competition was hurting. For them to get hit so hard this quarter is a significant development. Fox has relied upon a fierce sense of loyalty on the part of their viewers to prop up their ratings. I have described it as something of cult (the Cult of Foxonality) wherein Fox viewers are actually more devoted to the network than to any political party of philosophy. The ratings this quarter suggest that the hold that Fox has had on its audience is weakening.
As evidence of Fox’s diminishing influence, take a look at their biggest star, Glenn Beck. He has lost fully one third of his audience since the beginning of the year. Apparently people are tiring of his redundant, hyperbolic screeds pronouncing that half of the Obama administration are communists and the other half are Satanists. He may also have lost viewers when he called the President a racist and when he insulted Christians by warning them to flee their church if it practiced social justice.
Beck has other problems as well. He has undoubtedly been hurt by an advertiser boycott that has seen a couple of hundred advertisers swear off his program. In the UK he is airing with no advertisers at all. In this environment, how long can Fox News justify keeping him on the schedule? They waved off the ad boycott by bragging about his ratings. With neither ads nor viewers, the only thing they have left is an unpopular clown act that is descending further into televangelism with every episode.
The dilemma for Fox News is complicated. From the start they have been on a mission to advance the conservative philosophy of their owner, Rupert Murdoch, and his henchman, Roger Ailes. Unfortunately for them, they have failed miserably in that regard. They threw everything they had at the Democrats and still lost control of Congress in 2006, lost the White House in 2008, and lost the health care debate in 2010. Despite their ratings dominance they have not been able to convert it to their electoral advantage. What happens when their ratings dominance is gone?
The battle within the Fox executive suites will be one that pits the accountants against the ideologues. And let’s face it, in the rarefied air of Fox News, the accountants are toast. My money is on Fox News doubling down and expanding their partisan rhetoric. That’s what they’ve done in the past. In the months leading up to and following the Obama victory in 2008, Fox didn’t bother to recognize a national trend. Instead, they fortified their conservative flank by signing new long-term contracts with Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. They axed Hannity’s foil, Alan Colmes. They hired reinforcements like Beck, Mike Huckabee, Karl Rove, Dana Perino, Judith Miller, and Sarah Palin. They are not the sort of competitors that back down in the face of adversity – or reason.
If Fox does escalate the wingnut war, they are making a poor bet. They already own the franchise on rightist zealots and are unlikely to gain viewers in that demographic. More likely they can expect to see their ratings decline further. Americans are sick of the divisive ravings of partisan shills who have to resort to making things up in order to sway the debate.
The good news is that since the audience for Fox News has declined, the collective IQ of the country has risen. OK, I made that up, but it seems entirely plausible. Fox News viewers have been shown to be notably less informed, or more misinformed, than the viewers of other networks or the public at large. So it stands to reason that the fewer people infected with Fox lies, the more intelligent we are as a nation. And going forward that can only be a boon to the development of public policy and to democracy itself.