Some readers may be wondering why the frequent reporting lately on cable news ratings – in an online political publication that is not well known for catering to the business side of media – is worthy of their attention. The simple answer is that the ups and downs of the three cable news channels’ rankings are increasingly important to the future of high-information citizens and voters.
Cable television news channels – like all of cable and broadcast TV – live and die according to the ratings, generated by the Nielsen Company, which are the basis of advertising rates and ultimately corporate profits. The introduction of the Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1996 started a sea change in television news. Finally, after decades of center-left dominance of the mainstream media, there was a high-profile, widely available alternative – “fair and balanced” with generous and generally respectful coverage of conservative points of view.
By 2001, a year that will live in infamy for other reasons, a new status quo had emerged. For the next fifteen and a half years, Fox News was consistently the number one cable news channel, almost always trouncing CNN and MSNBC. Incredibly, Fox News was responsible for around $1 billion a year in profits for its parent company, 21st Century Fox, and was the largest profit center in the huge Fox entertainment business that includes movies, broadcast television, and book publishing, to name a few.
Fox News’s most famous host, Bill O’Reilly, had the number one show in all of cable news without interruption – an unprecedented achievement – beginning in 2001 until he was abruptly fired in April 2017.
At that point, a tectonic shift in the cable news landscape seemed like it might be imminent. In O’Reilly’s wake, the reconfigured Fox News prime time schedule appeared vulnerable. Without much delay, the previously unthinkable started to happen. Many programs on the Fox News channel began to suffer ratings losses. And Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s perennial ratings loser with her radical left wing show at 9 PM ET, started to beat Fox News in the “demo” (viewers aged 25-54) and on some nights victory for MSNBC in capturing the total number of viewers was now in sight.
The mainstream print media – in most cases never fans of FNC to begin with – started to take notice. Scores of print and Internet outlets began to report on the crises seemingly facing Fox News, while heralding purported “surges” in the performance of its two rivals. The numbers don’t lie and during several weeks this past spring MSNBC was the number one cable news channel in both total and demo viewers.