An "ominous trend" for Fox News' ratings

Once dominant cable news channel is finding increased competition from rivals.

By Steve Benen
Published June 30, 2008 1:57PM (EDT)

In the first quarter of 2008, Fox News, after six years of cable-news ratings dominance, saw itself slip into second place behind CNN in the so-called money demo -- viewers in their mid-20s through mid-50s, whom advertisers care about most. The shift came thanks to a series of competitive primary nights and debates among Democratic candidates, after the Republican nomination had already been settled.

As it turns out, in the second quarter, as the Democratic race quieted down and the general election campaigning began, Fox News reclaimed the lead, but just barely. The New York Times reports that the "back-and-forth these last few months masks a more ominous trend for Fox News."

The most dominant cable news channel for nearly a decade and a political force in its own right, Fox has seen its once formidable advantage over CNN erode in this presidential election year, as both CNN and MSNBC have added viewers at far more dramatic rates.

In the first five-and-a-half months of 2004, the last presidential election year, Fox's prime-time audience among viewers aged 25 to 54 was more than double that of CNN's — 530,000 to 248,000, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research. This year, through mid-June, CNN erased the gap and drew nearly as many viewers in that demographic category as Fox — about 420,000 for CNN to 440,000 for Fox.

Meanwhile, CNN has added 170,000 viewers a night, on average, when compared with the last presidential year, while Fox has shed about 90,000, according to Nielsen. (MSNBC, which added 181,000 viewers in that audience, much of it courtesy of gains by "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," still lagged in third place, with 303,000.)

Clearly, the Democratic race, and the fact that the Democratic candidates wouldn't debate on Fox News, had something to do with the shift. But as the Times noted, "Disproportionate interest in the Democratic campaign alone cannot explain the struggles of Fox relative to years past, and the gains of its competitors." The paper suggested Fox News' competitors have caught up thanks to an "emphasis on sharp opinions, glitzy graphics and big personalities."

Maybe. I'd offer an alternative explanation: As the conservative movement falls apart, and the country is ready to move away from the Bush/Republican status quo, Fox News' shtick has grown pretty tiresome. Time's James Poniewozik argued recently that the network "has to figure out how not to seem like yesterday's news."

In Bush's America, with Republicans in ascension, Fox News became the official network of the federal government. Officials were anxious to dish propaganda, and the network was anxious to help disseminate it. The audience for GOP talking points has, however, grown smaller as the party's failures became more overwhelming. Given this, it's no wonder CNN has practically caught up to FNC in the "money demo," and MSNBC isn't too far behind.

I'd add, though, that the nation's good fortune may actually be Fox News' life preserver. If, come January, there's a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress for the first time in 16 years, there are going to be plenty of suddenly motivated conservatives looking for a news outlet to tell them how awful the governing party is. Fox News and its audience want someone to be mad at, and come 2009, they'll probably have no shortage of options.

Steve Benen

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