The ratings troubles at Fox News continue to mount as along with the collapse of Glenn Beck, the networks entire prime time lineup is down in down in total viewers over the past year. FNC embraced the Tea Party and saw its ratings fall 6%, while MSNBC’s have grown by 3%. In other words, since Fox News embraced the Tea Party, they have lost over 120,000 daily viewers.
According to the entire FNC prime time lineup has declined from their 2009 numbers. In May, “Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Greta Van Susteren have each hit their lowest point in a year or more with the key 25- to 54-year-old demo.” O’Reilly and Hannity had his lowest numbers in the demo since January of 2009, and Greta Van Sustern did her worst numbers since May of 2009.
O’Reilly went from averaging 1 million viewers in the demo in November 2009 to 693,000 in May. This is a trend that is mirrored all through the Fox News lineup. However, none of the programs have fallen as hard or fast as Glenn Beck. Beck’s numbers have collapsed from a high of 3.4 million total viewers to averaging 2 million, and on his bad days 1.7 million. In daytime viewers, Fox News is down 6%. In prime time, FNC is down by 7%. In contrast, MSNBC has seen its daytime viewers increase by 3%, and its prime time drop by 1%. CNN was still hemorrhaging viewers. They were off 16% during the day and 22% in prime time.
The sample size being used here is year to year or longer, so the comparison is based on how the network did during the same time frame the previous year. In terms of total viewers, Fox News has lost 120,000-140,000 sets of eyeballs, so the question becomes, what happened? Last summer at this time the right wing was whipped into a fever over health care reform. It is possible that after their defeat, many FNC viewers became dejected and abandoned the cause, but I don’t think this provides a complete explanation.
Another possibility is that Fox News is the network equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. They managed to boost their ratings with a campaign of Obama based fear, but as time goes on, and none of their dire predictions come true, it could be that some Fox News viewers are tuning out the drumbeat of fear. This is plausible, but since FNC’s audience is anti-Obama, not very likely. The best explanation is that when FNC mirrored the Republican Party and moved farther to the right, they alienated moderate and independent conservatives.
Essentially, the same dynamic that is shrinking the Republican Party is decreasing the potential audience for Fox News. The network has shifted from being a big tent home for conservatives to being one of the main sponsors of the Tea Party. They are so entrenched in the movement that they went as far as to appoint one of their employees, Sarah Palin, as the Tea Party leader. As Fox News has echoed the divisive angry language of Palin and the Tea Party, their more extremist tone turned off potential viewers.
The logic of using someone as polarizing and unpopular as Palin as bridge between the network and the Tea Partiers is dubious at best. It is as if no one ever thought that Palin could become the same kind of anchor around the necks of Fox News and the Tea Party that she was to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. This isn’t to say that Palin herself is strictly to blame. She isn’t, but she is the embodiment of what has gone wrong for both Fox News and the Tea Party.
The notion that Fox News could shift even further to the right, hire Sarah Palin, and engage in overt political advocacy, while still increasing ratings was a pipe dream akin to George W. Bush’s dream that he could make the economy flourish by both increasing spending and cutting taxes. Fox News embraced Palin and the far right only to see their reward be declining ratings. The execs at FNC guessed wrong on the future direction of the country, and now they are paying the price. The Fox News freight train is still strong, but is losing steam, because in politics, anger is a fuel that burns quickly, and has limited effectiveness.