March 21, 2013

The latest Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report is out and there are very troubling indicators for Fox News in it. While Fox remains “by far” the ratings leader among cable news networks, its prime time viewership remained flat, even though 2012 was an election year. Pew reports:

Fox News Channel, which still has higher ratings than CNN and MSNBC combined, experienced weaker ratings gains than MSNBC. That comparatively small growth was striking given that 2012 was an election year, playing to Fox’s near singular focus on political news. During daytime hours, Fox was up 4%. Across the total 24-hour day, Fox was up just 2%. And in prime time, Fox was basically flat (with a loss just under 1% compared to its 2011 median viewership).

This follows two years of small but real prime-time declines for the top cable news channel and may suggest that the challenge of growing an audience on cable can extend beyond CNN and HLN. Robert Thompson, a television expert at Syracuse University, argues that cable news has reached a saturation point. “Fox figured out how to get a core set of viewers to watch their programs on a nightly basis, as opposed to tuning in to cable when there was breaking news,” Thompson told the Pew Research Center. “But it may be that those numbers are settling in to what will be the general size of the audience. They can’t expect constant growth.”

It would be one thing if cable news simply maintained itself as a niche medium with capped but stable ratings. But demographic factors could further weaken viewership in the years to come. Regular viewers of the evening talk shows, which tend to draw the highest ratings across cable news, are older, according to Pew Research data. The 50 and older audience makes up 66% of Fox’s Hannity, 64% of Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, 59% of MSNBC’s Hardball (close to 30% are 65 or over), and 57% of its Rachel Maddow Show. These figures have inched up in recent years, while those for younger audiences have declined. Instead, the young 18-to-24-year-olds are turning to digital options: As many as 28%, according to Pew Research Center data, say digital news platforms are their sole source for news.

While Pew notes that Fox is hardly on its deathbed and that “for now” it is “holding strong” there are clouds on its financial horizon:

In 2012, Fox’s revenues and profits were both projected to have increased by a healthy 11%. Still, that is smaller growth than Fox had grown accustomed to in recent years. Percentage growth in revenues has shrunk every year since 2008, when they increased by more than a third. And the channels profits that year increased by a massive 65%.

Over at PoliticusUSA, Jason Easley put this together with other bad news for Fox, especially the big drop in its younger primetime viewers and its record low in public trust:

As the Baby Boomers age, they aren’t turning into Fox News viewers. This means that Fox News Channel (FNC) has been very successful at maintaining their core audience, but that aren’t having any success with their attempts to expand.

As their deals with television providers expire, both profits and availability are expected to grow for MSNBC. The same can’t be said for Fox News. FNC is already at their saturation point. They don’t have any new domestic television markets to expand into. What this means is that Fox News viewers have the loyalty of a cult, but the cult is not expanding. Fox News won’t go out of business today or tomorrow, but the problems that they facing are very real.

…The cable news leader has flat lined. ...What all of this means is that opponents may not have to try to get rid of Fox News. Their hyper-partisan programming and reliance on older viewers might end up doing it for them.

And in yet another sign of trouble, Fox is going to have some new competition for its right-wing eyeballs. Another conservative news channel, called One America, plans to launch July 4. One America, which will partner with the Washington Times, looks to be more ideological and less GOP-oriented than Fox:

Herring Broadcasting Company, Inc. said One America will be a 24/7 high-definition news channel which will fill a void by providing a “credible source of national and international news around the clock along with a number of signature political talk shows.”

… Producer and host Jenn Barlow says there’s room for another player in the conservative news market, as demonstrated by the high ratings for Fox News. Barlow said One America will feature more diversity and offer more perspective from the Tea Party and other conservatives.

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