Fox News is Leading Prime Time Network
Preying on the fears of old white people is good business.
Between the hours of 8 and 11 Eastern Time, more Americans are tuned to crackpot conspiracy theories and outright lies than any other channel. Not just any news channel. Any channel, period.
New York Times (“Boycotted. Criticized. But Fox News Leads the Pack in Prime Time.“)
In June and July, Fox News was the highest-rated television channel in the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m. Not just on cable. Not just among news networks. All of television. The average live Fox News viewership in those hours outstripped cable rivals like CNN, MSNBC and ESPN, as well as the broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC, according to Nielsen.
That three-hour slot is a narrow but significant slice of TV real estate, and it is exceedingly rare for a basic-cable channel to outrank the Big Three broadcasters, which are available in more households and offer a wider variety of programming.
Even the return of live sports did little to stop the momentum: The Fox News programs hosted by Mr. Carlson and Sean Hannity drew more live viewers than competing baseball and basketball games, including a Yankees-Nationals matchup on Opening Day.
Fox News’s big summer has been boosted by a rise in audience for news programming in general, an increase driven by interest in the pandemic, civil rights protests and the presidential election. ABC, CBS, and NBC, meanwhile, have more reruns on the summer schedule; the coronavirus has suspended most TV productions; and viewers are being lured away by streaming services and on-demand Hollywood movies.
To some degree, then, this is an anomaly. This is an unusually weak period for broadcast television and a peak time for news programming. Presumably, the return of Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and Thursday Night Football (presuming that actually happens) will restore the universe to its natural balance.
But there’s a reason one particular news network is leading all the others.
But the Fox News ratings also demonstrate the size and resilience of America’s audience for pro-Trump opinion, and the loyalty of Fox News viewers who shrug off the controversies that routinely swirl around the network.
“Massive news events that conservatives view through a highly partisan lens are driving the ratings, and none of the controversies really land with loyal Fox News viewers,” said Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at Columbia University and a historian of American conservative media.
Lachlan Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox News’s parent company, bragged on an earnings call last week about the network’s “astronomical” ratings. He also said its ad revenue was up from a year ago — a reminder that Fox News, for all the flak it takes from critics, politicians and the advertisers that fled Mr. Carlson, remains an unrivaled profit engine for the Murdoch empire.
Complaints that Fox News prime-time hosts downplayed the coronavirus — and, in the case of Laura Ingraham, encouraged the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug shown to be useless, and even dangerous, for Covid-19 patients — made little difference.
“The belief that hydroxychloroquine is something between a therapeutic and a miracle cure is wildly popular in conservative media, especially talk radio,” Ms. Hemmer said. “Tucker Carlson’s controversies have never really hurt his ratings, though they have cost him advertisers.”
The notion that lies and conspiracy theories “made little difference” is cute. They’re a feature, not a bug. Everyone else is telling the same story. One outlet is telling these people what they want to hear.
Two days stood out when Fox News ratings fell significantly: the funerals of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died after a police officer pinned him to the ground during a routine stop, and Representative John Lewis, the towering civil rights figure.
Like its rivals CNN and MSNBC, Fox News carried the memorial services live. During Mr. Floyd’s funeral, viewership on all three networks dipped. On both occasions, the drop in Fox News’s audience was stark, down to numbers more typically seen during overnight hours. (CNN and Mediaite previously reported on the ratings dips.)
That’s . . . not surprising. Floyd isn’t a public figure. Nobody outside a small circle had ever heard of him or had any interest in his funeral. That his brutal death at the hands of police sparked a national—indeed, international—protest movement doesn’t mean that it was about him per se.
It’s worth noting that, even though Fox News is leading prime time during an anomalous period doesn’t mean it’s the dominant news source.
The evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC are notching their biggest audiences in years. David Muir’s “World News Tonight” on ABC has been a standout: In July, its episodes were the top 18 telecasts across all of broadcast and cable television, drawing more viewers than usual summertime ratings leaders like NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
All three of the network newscasts, which air at 6:30 p.m., draw more viewers than Fox News’s prime-time shows, with Mr. Muir more than doubling Mr. Hannity’s average in July.
I honestly couldn’t tell you who is anchoring any of the other networks’ nightly news broadcasts these days. But it’s interesting that these fading entities still draw more than double Fox News’ most popular show—even though it’s dominating prime time.
Hannity and Carlson are, at the end of the day, infotainment at best. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an outsized role in shaping public opinion among a niche audience.