If you’ve ever wondered what Fox News gets out of its frenzied pursuit of controversy, look no further than the Nielsen ratings for the month of May 2013.
For Fox News 2013 began by delivering the network its worst numbers in twelve years. They saw their top programs losing viewers with double digit percentages. Bill O’Reilly dropped 25%, and Sean Hannity declined 19%. This occurred while their competition, Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow, increased their audiences by 23% and 32% respectively. It was dismal performance for Fox and omen of bad times to come.
A few months later, Fox has seen a noticeable bounce that will surely brighten their mood. The recovery can be entirely attributed to the bucket of scandals they have been serving up to their bloodthirsty, Obama-hating disciples. Nothing inspires wingnut viewer loyalty like the catastrophic misfortune of one’s enemies.
The numbers for May find Fox up 24% overall compared to the same period in 2012. While that may appear to be good news, there are hazards lurking in the ratings weeds. Take a look at this chart that contrasts Fox’s primetime total audience with their weak reach among the more highly valued 25-54 year old age group.
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The month of May was heavily weighted down by melodramatic news events that would appeal to Fox’s native audience. There would not likely be any migration to or from other networks during this time. CNN also benefited from the hard news orientation that is their area of expertise. Not surprisingly, MSNBC, who has soared in recent months, slowed down during this period due to their narrow focus on politics at a time when viewers were seeking out hard news. Even HLN had a solid month due to the various courtroom dramas that were playing out (Arias, Gosnell, etc.).
What is particularly striking though, is that Fox would produce such large gains overall and still decline substantially in the younger demos that advertisers favor. This is further evidence that Fox’s audience is graying at a rapid rate. This means that they will earn far less for their ad time than their competitors who attract a larger share of the demo audience. It also means that they will suffer over time as audiences age.
However, it is inescapable that Fox’s obsession with hyperbolic attacks on President Obama and his administration is not resonating with younger viewers. Fox is repeating the mistakes they committed last year by harping on wild conspiracies, extreme rightist rhetoric, and fantastical allegations for which they have no support. That’s the sort of behavior that turned them into a laughing stock and produced an audience that was stunned when Republicans cratered at the ballot box. The same sort of shock is going to strike Fox viewers when these myriad scandals all peter out. Their gullible audience will once again wonder how Fox could have assured them that the Obama administration was near collapse, but nothing close to that takes place. If there is one constant that Fox is careful to maintain, it is their determination to mislead their flock by feeding them the fringe-flavored chum they crave.
The near future will likely be more of the same barring any unforeseen circumstances. There are no predictable events on the horizon (i.e. elections) that are likely to stir the pot. Although the currently simmering pseudo-scandals may still have a little heat in them, and the Supreme Court will be dropping some decisions this summer. Other than that, stay tuned to be underwhelmed, unless you’re Fox viewer. In which case — be afraid, be very afraid.