Continuing a downward spiral that began last September during the Democratic National Convention, Fox News primetime ratings, in the key 25-54 year old demographic, have declined to numbers they haven’t seen since August of 2001. These are numbers that revert Fox back to the George Bush, pre-9/11 era when Fox was struggling for attention.
9/11 was an integral part of the rise of Fox News. It was the catalyst that formed their America-first persona and thrust them into a role as cheerleaders rather than journalists.
These twelve year lows for their best known programs portend trouble for Fox as their audience tires of a schedule that hasn’t changed in more than a decade. Creaky old timers O’Reilly and Hannity have been in their time slots since the network launched in 1996. Worse yet for Fox, their slump is occurring at a time when MSNBC is soaring. For most of the time since last November’s election, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell have been beating Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity in the demo. In addition to those victories, most of MSNBC’s programs are the top performers among 18-34 year olds, which means that they have a significant advantage with the next generation of television news consumers. MSNBC is also number one with African-American viewers, a status they have enjoyed for 36 consecutive months.
The graying Fox News is a phenomenon that is occurring with both their programs and their audience. While many of Fox’s shows held steady in total audience, they plunged in the younger demos. This was true across the board with primetime and all other dayparts, including their three hour morning block, Fox & Friends. Conversely, MSNBC’s audience was up in both the demo and total audience. The ratings story for MSNBC is no longer merely one of faster growth and higher percentage gains. They are now beating their Fox competition head-on in primetime and challenging them respectably in daytime.
For the most part it appears that MSNBC’s gains are coming from new, younger viewers. They certainly are not luring dissatisfied Fox viewers over to their channel. However, Fox now has to worry about a rebuilding CNN. Their new president Jeff Zucker is shaking up the roster with announcements of hirings and firings both in front of and behind the camera. Considering that the previous management at CNN was so inept and oblivious to the news marketplace, it is hard to believe that Zucker won’t produce some improvement. And with Fox viewers abandoning the network that has been lying to them so brazenly, CNN may start to look like a plausible alternative.
Of course, as the ratings race heats up, Fox may decide to stop standing around watching their lead disappear. They will need to take bold steps to keep up with the competition. While O’Reilly is still pulling in decent numbers, Hannity is ratings loser and an embarrassment in terms of credibility. He has to be the first to go. Greta Van Susteren’s claim to fame was as an O.J. Simpson groupie who has never risen out of the tabloid mold in which she was formed. Now that her best pal and frequent guest (55 times), Sarah Palin, has been dumped by Fox, Van Susteren would be wise to update her resume. The most likely candidate to fill one of those vacancies would be Megyn Kelly, who has emerged as Fox’s most stridently biased anchor in the daytime.
There are those at Fox who know that a big part of the explanation for their decline is that the audience at large is no longer interested in the vitriolic smear jobs that Fox has specialized in for most of the past decade. They just watched President Obama get reelected, along with Democratic gains in both houses of Congress, despite their fierce determination to kneecap the Democrats and prop up the flailing GOP. They did the best they could to install a Republican regime with a coordinated campaign of propaganda and hate speech, but they failed miserably even in races they were expected to win. So they are aware that the public has rejected their best arguments and lies.
The trick will be to moderate their political biases in order to appeal to a broader audience without causing their loyalist legions to pull up stakes and camp out on Alex Jones’ web site plotting a restoration of the Confederacy from their bunkers. Spurned conservative extremists of the sort that form the foundation of the Fox audience are a vengeful lot. They primary long-serving GOP incumbents and replace them with crackpots who have no chance of winning. And that’s the sort of reaction they would have to any attempt by Fox to become less wingnutty. The Fox regulars would not only stop watching a more moderate Fox, they would turn against it with the force of a swarm of rabid squirrels deranged by disease and paranoia.
That leaves Fox in the impossible position of having to cater to their faithful fringe while reaching out to more rational viewers. It simply can’t be done and they would displease both. The only sensible course for Fox would be to accept a few seasons in the cellar as they regroup with a focus on responsible journalism. But that isn’t the style of the hardcore rightists in the Fox executive suites. Neither Rupert Murdoch nor Roger Ailes would be inclined to surrender the platform they built for wealthy elitists, captains of industry, Christian evangelists, and other power mad egomaniacs who are convinced that God has selected them to rule.
The good news is that their self-centered intransigence will insure that Fox continues to slide into obscurity and the people will have a better opportunity shape a more equitable society. Of course, the people would still have to overcome the rest of the media-corporate-government complex that has long been the biggest obstacle to a truly democratic nation. But it’s a start.