Fox News Shakes Off Tough Year as Viewers Tune in for Trump

  • Post-election decline in viewers is smaller than competitors’
  • Tucker Carlson gains fans in new show replacing Van Susteren

Fox News, which survived an internal crisis and a challenge from CNN during the presidential campaign, is showing its resiliency post-election as well.  
 
The conservative-leaning network, the most-watched cable TV channel this year, has done a better job keeping the viewers it gained during the campaign than competitors. In the age group that advertisers target in news, Fox’s prime-time audience is down 14 percent in the weeks after the election, according to Nielsen data supplied by the network. CNN has declined 56 percent and MSNBC is off 48 percent.

“They won, didn’t they?” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast for Omnicom Media Group, a media buyer. “The vast majority of Fox News viewers are probably happy with the outcome of the election and would want to continue to tune in, whereas viewers of the other networks are the opposite in terms of political leanings. I don’t know if it’s more complicated than that.”

The numbers are especially important for parent 21st Century Fox Inc. Cable outlets led by Fox News delivered almost 80 percent of profit at Rupert Murdoch’s media company last year, with the news channel providing about a fourth of the total, according to SNL Kagan. The network looked like it was in trouble earlier this year when its head and co-founder Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox’s conservative tone, was accused of sexual harassment. Shares of Fox have gained 4.7 percent this year.

After giving Ailes a new contract in mid-2015, 21st Century Fox moved swiftly when the sexual-harassment scandal broke in July of this year. Ailes was sued by former anchor Gretchen Carlson, who claimed she was fired for spurning his advances and complaining about his conduct. Two weeks later Ailes was out and Rupert Murdoch had assumed his role overseeing the news network. In September, the company paid Carlson a $20 million settlement and apologized, though Fox News wasn’t named as a defendant.

Interest High

Since then, and with interest in the incoming Trump administration still high among Fox News viewers, the network has demonstrated the ability to attract and keep viewers. In the weeks following the election, the network widened its lead over competitors in both total viewers and the older, 25-to-54-year-old demographic and staved off a pre-election challenge from CNN in that group. Fox News, along with liberal-leaning MSNBC, is also up from a year earlier, before interest in the 2016 presidential race heated up.

Last week, Fox News claimed 25 of the 40 most-watched shows on cable TV, according to Nielsen data. The usual leaders were there: stalwarts like “The O’Reilly Factor” and “The Kelly File.” Yet the standings also included “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which began airing four weeks ago at 7 p.m. as the replacement to “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren, who left the network.

In his first four weeks, Carlson has averaged 2.9 million viewers a night, beating the combined audiences of CNN’s “Erin Burnett Out Front” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC.

“Tucker was the ideal choice to kick off our powerful prime-time lineup and the viewers are responding -- the numbers have never been better in that hour,” Murdoch said in a statement.

Fox’s Challenges

Fox News still faces some challenges. The network hasn’t re-signed its two big stars, Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, whose contracts expire next year. What’s more, viewing could continue to decline after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in January, when there will be less news about who’s staffing the new administration and more coverage of the day-to-day business of governing.

O’Reilly, 67, said in an interview this week with the industry website Deadline.com that he’s still pondering what to do. Kelly, in a Dec. 19 interview in the Washington Post, said she received a generous offer from Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son and co-chairman of 21st Century Fox, and is weighing her options. She also said that wherever she lands, she wants to be home for dinner with her kids and able to see soccer games after school.

A Fox contributor since 2009, Carlson, 47, is positioning his show like O’Reilly’s, as a kind-of on-air enforcer of honesty. While “The O’Reilly Factor” tells viewers “the spin stops here,” Carlson opens each segment saying the program will be the “sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink.”

Initial Subjects

“If there is such a thing as absolute editorial freedom, I’m enjoying it right now,” Carlson said in a telephone interview.

In his first few weeks, his subjects have included Nicholas Kristof and Liz Spayd of the New York Times, along with Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and columnist for the Guardian newspaper who has detailed U.S. and U.K. surveillance programs. His aim, though, is to interview more people in the news, not host commentators.

“It’s harder to book people like that,” he said. “They are hard to find, they are not used to doing television, they are afraid of it.”

With his show already among cable’s most-watched, Carlson, a former contributor at MSNBC, PBS and CNN, has helped Fox News claim the prime-time lead with younger audiences and build its edge in the key news demographic group.

“They have a loyal audience, a loyal older audience, and I really don’t see that changing to any great degree by kind of rearranging the chairs a little,” said Andrew Donchin, chief investment officer at Dentsu Aegis Network, which buys ads on channels including Fox News for companies including General Motors and Pfizer. “The challenge to all the cable news networks is to attract dollars that aren’t technically earmarked for cable news, to try and get more advertisers on the air who wouldn’t think to advertise on cable news networks.”

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