Don’t Believe The Hype About Fox News Ratings

As the numbers come in for the second quarter, cable news networks are all putting on their best spin to wrangle positive stories that promote how much better they are than their competition. It’s an age-old ritual that pits marketing flacks against one another as they jostle for position and advertising bucks. And nobody does this more relentlessly than Fox News.

Everywhere you look you can see the effect of Fox’s PR blitz. They proudly boast that they have increased viewership in the 25-54 demographic 50% over Q2 of 2008 (Monday-Sunday, primetime). Simultaneously, they taunt MSNBC and CNN for falling off 2.6% and 19.2% respectively. The core of their message is that, along with continuing their leading position in cable news, they are also outpacing their rivals in growth. That’s an argument that requires a little further exploration.

Fox News has typically been the slowest growing cable news network. Up until about a year ago, they were the only network that regularly posted declines, which they did for a couple of years running. So what happened in the last year that appears to have interrupted that trend?

Recall that during the second quarter of 2008, the Democratic Party was still embroiled in a fiercely contested primary for president. The Republican primary had been effectively over since February. So interest in campaign news tilted away from the GOP network (aka Fox). What’s more, Democrats had forsworn appearing in debates sponsored by Fox News. The result was that MSNBC and CNN benefited noticeably by their coverage of the most compelling news events of the season, while Fox had to be satisfied with interviewing themselves and squawking from the bleachers. Consequently, Fox’s ratings for Q2 of 2008 were 2.3% lower than the same period in 2007. By comparison, MSNBC was up 46.9% and CNN was higher by 21.7%.

By outperforming Fox so spectacularly, from a growth perspective, in 2008, it makes for difficult comparisons in 2009. So a far more interesting analysis would be to remove the unique circumstances of the 2008 presidential campaign year, and compare performance from 2007 to 2009. In that race, Fox still did pretty well gaining 47.2% over the two year span. However, MSNBC was close behind with a 42.7% gain. CNN, while not keeping stride with the others, was still not as far behind as represented in the single year comparison. They were basically flat (-1.7%).

None of this diminishes the fact that Fox is still the runaway leader according to Nielsen, an increasingly unreliable source that even Bill O’Reilly considers to be less than honest. And although he pretends to be opposed to big-government interference and regulation, he hypocritically declares that…

“The bottom line on this is there may be some big-time cheating going on in the ratings system, and we hope the feds will investigate. Any fraud in the television rating system affects all Americans.”

Fox’s ratings success is more likely due to the cult-like brand loyalty of the rightist, delusional demographic. But it is still disheartening because their ratings dominance rewards them financially for lying and advocating terrorism. However, on a positive note, MSNBC was the number one cable news network among 18-34 year-olds. This continues a trend that suggests that the next generation of news consumers will be rejecting Fox News and its ilk.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to tolerate Fox’s bragging while putting it into perspective. They still have fewer viewers than SpongeBob SquarePants. Their highest rated show (O’Reilly) still has about a third of the viewers of broadcast TV’s lowest rated news program (CBS Nightly News). And there is real consolation in knowing that, while they win on the Idiot Box, they are losing at the ballot box.


12 thoughts on “Don’t Believe The Hype About Fox News Ratings

  1. Personally, I hate ratings discussions on anyone’s program – including Olbermann’s. Leave it to the corporate types in their private meetings where these considerations matter. I don’t watch shows because they’re doing well, or to increase their viewership, but because the relevant topics they cover, and how they’re covered, appeal to me. My interest in the numbers begins and ends with the reassurance that they’re successful enough to continue airing. Meanwhile, when O’Reilly gloats, someone ought to remind him his ratings only confirm that there are more stupid people than smart ones.

    • I agree that talking about your own ratings on the air just makes you seem overly egotistical. But we can discuss it, and we need to, in order to understand and respond to the reality of the media environment.

  2. Jealousy is an undesirable trait!

    • How very self-aware of you for admitting that. Your jealousy of our electoral successes is indeed undesirable.

  3. Fox’s ratings success is more likely due to the cult-like brand loyalty of the rightist, delusional demographic.
    In other words, Fox is whipping your butt soundly because the American public is tired of being lied to by the lefty media.

    Deal with it.

    • Fox isn’t whipping my butt. I don’t have a TV show or network. They are whipping the butts of some other networks, but that doesn’t mean that the American public is supporting them. In fact, only about 1% of the American public even watches Fox News.

      Deal with it.

    • “because the American public is tired of being lied to by the lefty media.”

      like americans havent already been lied to by the “righty” media? courtesy of limbaugh, oreilly, hannity, beck, and levin, the far right wingnuts continue to decieve the american people.

    • In other words, and as I explained above, FOX exploits the fact that there are more stupid people than intelligent people. See, I can assert my own “because” as well as anyone.

      Deal with it.

  4. Can some jackass please say ‘deal with it’ again…

    So Fox is killing the competition because there are “more stupid people than intelligent people”?…

    I guess we can’t all be as bright as you, how bliss

  5. This is so like my friends on the left to cry foul. We do this when we know we are wrong. I hope they don’t investigate. The feds might find out I have been keeping my hardballs at the White House every night.

  6. Thank you Mark, for your thoughtful and enlightening post. The “cult like” reference was particularly insightful. The other thing is that, thankfully, Fox News, is the only one of its kind, so everyone who thinks like them swarms to them. Also, thankfully the other news organizations are more or less homogeneous so the viewers are spread out among them. If there was only one other news network that had a more balanced perspective, and Fox was beating them in the ratings, they could rightfully claim ratings victory. As it stands now, the most they can claim, is they serve a certain demographic and that demographic is very loyal to them (cult-like). Additionally, there are millions of people like me who don’t get their news from cable tv period – we utilize online news sites. Fox is using their viewer numbers to claim a majority share their views – but then that is their specialty, untruth, half-truths, lies, and distortions. That they do excel at.

    • You’re welcome. And thank you.

      Do you notice how Fox hosts love to hypw their ratings – particularly O’Reilly? It’s all they have. Winning at the idiot box.

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