A little over two years ago I wrote an article titled, The Cult Of Foxonality™. It’s premise was that…
“Fox viewers appear to be more loyal to Fox than to Republicans or conservatism. This misdirected allegiance bestows a far more influential authority onto a media entity than ought ever to be considered. It suggests that the bombastic demagogues that Fox has shaped into celebrity anchors truly do weigh down their transfixed disciples.”
That piece employed an analysis of ratings and viewer habits at the time that confirmed that Fox News viewers were wedded to their cable hearth and would not be moved. Subsequent events reinforced the theory. For instance, prior to the election, a Rasmussen poll reported that nine out of ten Fox News viewers intended to vote for John McCain. That’s a higher percentage of McCain voters than amongst Republicans.
Recently, Fox News has been building on their ratings dominance. In an attempt to understand why Fox would be increasing their audience at a time when Republicans are reaching new lows, I revisited the cult hypothesis. No other model adequately explains the stark divergence of the fates of Fox News and the Republican Party.
Looking at the current cable news landscape, there is an obvious separation of the primary players. Fox News is far and away the leader. MSNBC is the spunky challenger that has recently overtaken the old master, CNN. It would be easy to assign labels that reflect the partisan programming philosophy of these networks. However, in truth, there is only one truly partisan network among them.
Fox News’ success is firmly rooted in its primetime lineup. With Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Greta Van Susteren all easily winning their time periods. Add to that Glenn Beck’s arrival that has put him in competition with perennial leader O’Reilly. But it doesn’t stop there.
Fox’s business anchor (and head of their business network) is Neil Cavuto, an aggressively conservative advocate for right-wing viewpoints. Fox’s Washington editor is the blatantly partisan Bill Sammon. The White House correspondent is the equally biased Major Garrett. The Fox morning program is an almost laughable cliche of wingnut dunces.
Compare that to MSNBC’s schedule that consists of only two reliable liberals. Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. [Edit: Add Ed Schultz] Chris Matthews swings both ways and is close buddies with folks like Tom Delay and Rudy Giuliani. Their morning program is three hours hosted by the conservative Republican, former congressman, Joe Scarborough. (Can you imagine Fox News giving three daily hours of airtime to a liberal Democrat?) CNN has become devoid of any personality at all. Their leading figures are null types like Larry King and Anderson Cooper. Although Lou Dobbs does stand out a bit.
So here is the interesting part. Glenn Beck was on CNN just a few months ago with nowhere near the audience he has today on Fox. CNN’s Dobbs, and MSNBC’s Scarborough are as conservative as anyone on Fox, but they can’t duplicate those numbers. What this tells us is that cable news success has little to do with partisanship. If it did, Dobbs and Scarborough would be doing Fox-like business, and Beck would not have had to move to Fox to find an audience. But he did have to move. Because Fox viewers, despite their obvious idolization of him now, were not going to go to CNN to see him. And it wasn’t because they didn’t know who he was. He was already the third biggest star on talk radio.
Therefore, the key to the popularity of Fox is that it is Fox. Their viewers are not interested in programs that feature the same ideology if presented on other networks. CNN could hire Sarah Palin and she would flop. But not on Fox. In fact, I would wager that if Dobbs and/or Scarborough shifted to Fox, everyone would be astonished at their newfound popularity.
Fox is the home of the forlorn, conservative, tea bagging, town howler. They have found their happy place, and they have no intention of moving from it. It is what gives them solace in a time when liberals (or socialists/fascists) have taken over the House, the Senate, and even put a dark-skinned, Muslim, illegal alien in the White House. They need the camaraderie. They need the affirmation. They need the reassurance that the world isn’t crumbling beneath them (or in Beck’s case, that it is). They are even marketing the Fox Nation web site with the undisguised message of a promise of togetherness.
It’s just so sad. I think I’m gonna cry. But that would be Glenn Beck’s shtick.