Fox News Ratings Down (CNN’s Down Twice As Much)

The ratings at Fox News are down among viewers aged 25 to 54, leading Scott Collins of the LAT to speculate on the cause.

Some recent ratings news no doubt gladdened the hearts of Fox News Channel haters. First, Nielsen Media Research reported that Fox News’ overall prime-time lineup dropped 17% last month compared with a year ago (MSNBC grew 16% during the same period, while CNN plummeted by 38%). Late last week, a reliable television industry website,, reported that in April, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had his worst month in nearly five years among viewers age 25 to 54, the most coveted audience in TV news.

Although the network still churns out ratings light-years ahead of competitors’ and O’Reilly remains cable news’ No. 1 host, Fox News’ explosive growth appears to be, like the president’s 90% approval rating in the days following Sept. 11, a relic from the first Bush term. That’s the elephant in the room, of course — the broadly assumed, and occasionally documented, affinity between Fox News and the current administration (Vice President Dick Cheney’s office prepared a hotel checklist, recently posted on, that ordered “all televisions tuned to Fox News” during Cheney visits). Could it be mere coincidence that O’Reilly, populist scourge of both Clintons and countless left-wing causes, is seeing his still-formidable nightly audience of 2.1 million or so start to shrink in tandem with the Bush/GOP’s rapidly fading grip on the electorate?

Except that CNN’s ratings are down more than twice Fox’s decline, despite starting from a lower base. If Fox were going to decline along with the Bush administration, wouldn’t we expect CNN to go up?

O’Reilly’s thoroughly delighted rivals think not. “When the stock market was through the roof in the ’90s, people used to sit around and watch CNBC and slap high fives and say, ‘I made another hundred bucks today!’ ” said MSNBC host and O’Reilly foe Keith Olbermann, adding that CNBC’s ratings quickly went south when the tech bubble burst. “I think the same psychology applies to Fox. They’ll always have their hard-core audience that wants to hear, ‘Everything’s great! [Bush is] doing a great job.’ ” But less-partisan viewers are drifting away, Olbermann argued.

Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, agrees. “Maybe this is part of the deal with the devil you make when a supposed news network allies itself so closely with one point of view,” he said.

To be fair and balanced here: Olbermann’s “Countdown” competes head to head with “The O’Reilly Factor” and the two hosts have been engaged in a months-long feud. Although Olbermann’s ratings climbed 35% last month, his total audience remains less than one-fourth the size of O’Reilly’s.

As for CNN, its lineup showed far greater erosion last month than Fox’s. “We’re down because we had such a phenomenal year last year,” Klein said. The one major growth story at CNN is Lou Dobbs, whose program seems to add viewers in direct proportion to its host’s fiercely expressed views against illegal immigration.

So, we have a guy who goes head to head with O’Reilly and gets a quarter of his ratings analyzing O’Reilly’s dropoff? Based on a one month trend? During a month when O’Reilly was on vacation for seven days?

And CNN remains light years behind Fox in the ratings despite a huge initial lead and a “phenomenal” 2005? And their only growth industry is a guy expressing populist conservative views?

Fox’s argument that there has just been a natural lull in the news lately with no stories riveting the public is dismissed with several paragraphs around the unsupported thesis, “Perhaps it’s that the network isn’t thoroughly engaging the issues that are giving the administration so many troubles.” Again, though, unless CNN is also ignoring these issues, this would not seem to account for the plummeting ratings there.

Patrick Frey also weighs in on this story, wondering why his favorite paper pays so much attention to Fox’s fall while treating CNN’s as a parenthetical. While I understand the focus on Fox, which is both the ratings leader and the symbol of a new style in news hated by many in the business, one would think that Collins’ editor would have at least done a logical comparison of Fox and CNN vis-a-vis the analysis made in the piece.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ICallMasICM says:

    Maybe there will be some more hot teen abductions or runaway bimbos to revive ratings?

  2. Age Tatter says:

    Blogs are taking over and I was first!

  3. Pug says:

    Fox News has just added another crime show, “The Line-Up”, starring the hot little former wife of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome.

    Eye candy and pretty missing white girls. It can’t miss.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a slow news year.

    No big shooting war just the constant grind in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, there are no Sheratons in Dar Fur so we’re not getting a lot of coverage from there.

    Not much in the way of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes or other flashy natural disasters. Even if there are people dropping dead in the streets from a pandemic that won’t get the kind of news coverage (except maybe through a telephoto lens) that other natural catastrophes would.

    They shouldn’t worry: things will perk up. Something terrible will happen any day now.

  5. Brian says:

    I follow the ratings pretty closely, so I want to correct a couple of things. O’Reilly’s dropoff is not a one month trend. It’s been trending that way for quite some time. Here is a great post about it on the TVNewser website:

    Ratings growth is incredibly hard to come by in the news business, as it takes years to build an audience. That is why Olbermann’s ratings are making such news. A 35% growth in one year is huge, especially in a “slow news year.” And the article said he has 1/4 the viewers of O’Reilly. This is true in total viewers, but advertisers and therefore network execs don’t care about this at all. The 25-54 demo is what matters, and Olbermann has roughly half O’Reilly’s audience there.

    As for CNN’s losses, it’s not a big story because it just continues the trend that has been going on for years. As long as their lineup features the Zahn, King, Cooper clowns, it will continue, regardless of ideological trends.

  6. McGehee says:

    Not much in the way of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes or other flashy natural disasters.

    Yet. Though the tornado season is underway, hurricane season doesn’t start — officially, at least — for another month.

  7. McGehee says:

    O�Reilly�s dropoff is not a one month trend. It�s been trending that way for quite some time.

    Good, dammit.

  8. JohnW says:

    I’m a news junkie. used to have CNN on virtually 24 hours a day. Shifted over to Fox about 2 years ago, because I found the shows more enjoyable, & appreciated actually seeing some conservatives for a change.

    What has been irritating me lately, is that there are more and more Liberals, often whacked-out ones getting more & more air time. Some really torque me off big-time. G-d knows there are sufficient Democrat talking heads & surrogates all over the other channels, & I wish there were fewer on Fox.