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.