Fox News Ratings Free Fall Is a ‘Self-Inflicted Wound,’ Insiders Say
(Daily Beast) - The network fell behind CNN and MSNBC in key ratings figures for the first time in 20 years—a remarkable nosedive that has staffers worried and critics gloating.
Signaling a seismic shift in the media landscape as defeated former president Donald Trump hibernates in strangely silent exile at Mar-a-Lago, Fox News’ two-decade-long winning streak came to an abrupt end Tuesday while rivals CNN and MSNBC claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, respectively, in all of cable television.
Fox News’ embarrassing third-place showing is the continuation of a downward trend in which the right-leaning outlet lost 2020’s fourth quarter to CNN and alienated Trump-supporting loyal viewers by calling Arizona early for Joe Biden during its Election Night coverage.
This unwelcome development is predictably prompting internal panic among staffers, who fear it will result in additional job losses after recent layoffs—and gloating among detractors.
“Fox has seen ratings dips before and has always come back. But there’s no denying this is disastrous for them,” said a former on-air Fox News personality, asking not to be further identified.
“They were out-crazied on the right,” said television entrepreneur Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, noting that two of Fox News’ further-right competitors benefited from viewers’ post-election anger. “One America News and Newsmax were more willing to provide the heroin that conspiracy addicts were looking for.”
Klein added: “For years, Fox has been denying climate change, denying that social inequity exists, denying that Obama was a citizen. So they’ve bred a sizable chunk of viewers who routinely deny the truth—and those viewers punished Fox News the moment they reported that Biden won Arizona, and they haven’t stopped. It’s like when that chimp you raised from a baby tears your face off. Now the question is what is Rupert Murdoch willing to do to get them back?”
The nearly 90-year-old Australia-born media baron, who launched the channel with Roger Ailes in 1996, has been increasingly hands-on in the operation of Fox News in recent weeks as ratings troubles became apparent—and was a key decision-maker in last month’s sweeping daytime programming and talent shakeup.
“I should think Rupert Murdoch is very angry indeed,” said television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “But that’s different than actually doing anything about it,” he added, noting that Murdoch turns 90 next month and is hardly in a position to provide the day-to-day management that Fox News sorely needs.
Tyndall added: “Fox has been rudderless since Ailes left”—a reference to the cable channel’s late, disgraced chairman whom Murdoch reluctantly forced out in July 2016 amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct in the wake of longtime anchor Gretchen Carlson’s shocking lawsuit. Ailes died in May 2017. “They’ve been living on an inherited formula and haven’t adjusted with the times,” Tyndall said. “They’ve been particularly unable to replicate Ailes’ discipline in straddling both sides of the divide—being a journalistic organization and being a propaganda organization. He managed to finesse that, and his successors have not.”
The former Fox News personality, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast: “They clearly have no plan other than to keep reshuffling the same old tired, uninteresting deck chairs, and the audience knows it. The lack of leadership, a bench, or any exciting, news-making ideas coupled with the blood-letting to Newsmax and OANN have put it in a position never seen before for FNC. There is zero doubt they are panicking behind the scenes and, worse yet, don’t have Roger Ailes to solve it.”
Current Fox News staffers fixed blame on, among others, former Ailes lieutenant Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News Media for the past two years, and Fox News Media President Jay Wallace, who reports to Scott.
“There is no grand plan for getting out of the toilet and if there is, no one knows about it,” one network insider said. “Suzanne and Jay are making it up as they go along. This is when lack of leadership is most evident.”
“[Scott] is not going to have as many lives as Roger did,” predicted one staffer who, like others who spoke to The Daily Beast, asked not to be named out of concern for possible corporate reprisals. “We are victims of our own success,” this staffer added, noting that Fox News’ election coverage precipitated the ratings slide. “We conditioned our viewers to expect their daily dose of affirmation, and once we painted ourselves into a corner and could no longer do so, they jumped ship to other outlets that will tell them what they want to hear.
“This channel and everyone associated with it created a monster, preying on low-information Americans. What’s even more dangerous is that they’re angry… The programming is getting pathetically desperate to get viewers back. Seeing the bare minimum of debate on shows. It’s sad. This is a self-inflicted wound.”
Nielsen ratings for the month of January—during which rioting Trump supporters staged a lethal insurrection at the United States Capitol and Biden was inaugurated the 46th president—show Fox News trailing in third place in total day and overall viewers for the first time since April 2000. In the advertiser-friendly ages 25-to-54 demographic, the right-leaning outlet hasn’t been third for total day since October 2001, according to Nielsen.