The media world was abuzz last week as Matt Drudge reported a rare prime-time shakeup at Fox News: Rising star Megyn Kelly is moving to 9 p.m., bumping the current inhabitant of that hour, the “Great American” Sean Hannity, to parts unknown.
The domino effect has not yet been revealed, with speculation that Kelly’s move might produce other changes, including hard news star and 7 p.m. anchor Shepard Smith potentially shifting roles, and 10 p.m. host Greta Van Susteren moving hours.
The most interesting nugget from all this came from Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who in an interview with host Neil Cavuto, neither confirmed nor denied specifics as to which hosts would be moving where, but did give us a window into his reasoning behind his first significant prime-time lineup change in a decade: attracting more young people to the predominantly older channel. He used Fox’s highly rated show “The Five” as a marker for bringing youth into the Fox tent.
“It appeals to young people, and it is going to be a big Internet project for us as well,” he said, adding that expanding Fox’s digital presence was also important. “You will see things, not just in talent — and I think picking talent is one of the things that are essential to winning — but also the rise of social media, the digital side of our unit is growing.”
Reading Ailes' statements left me with one thought: Where in the world was this youth movement enthusiasm when I served as the lead guest booker for Foxnews.com’s marathon eight-hour a day Web show, "Strategy Room" (now Foxnews.com Live) from 2008 to 2010?
Most of you probably never heard of this, as Fox did zilch to promote its Web offerings or make them successful. Back then, my colleagues and I would joke that we were the luckiest employees in the building, working for a fun Web show not as overtly partisan as the TV side, that the second floor of high-powered executives paid little attention to. This was a great experience for my career, but I was often left dumbfounded that the aforementioned executives, and the media genius at the top I kept hearing about, was squandering a huge opportunity to become the first cable news shop doubling as a digital Web powerhouse.
Three years removed, I now realize why Ailes didn’t prioritize digital content. He saw two puzzle pieces that didn’t fit: a conservative cable news network and a digital medium dominated by young, politically liberal eyeballs.
One indisputable attribute of Ailes is that he knows numbers forward and backward, both in the ratings and political arenas. In the former, his network has long been the top dog for total viewers, but lately hasn’t had much to brag about in the advertising-important 25-54 age demo. According to Nielsen, in the second quarter of 2013, Fox lost 11 percent of its younger viewer audience as compared to the same time in 2012. Over the last two years, Fox has had a median age of 65-plus for both the full day and for its prime-time lineup. Younger people fleeing the network, specifically in prime time, goes back even further, as the prime-time numbers in the demo have taken a nose dive for five years straight, down from 557,000 to 379,000 in 2013.
But what’s causing Ailes even more despair? He knows that this 65 median age number is probably much higher, as Nielsen doesn’t provide exact age numbers for viewers older than 65. Ultimately, the former presidential campaign operative knows he can be looking at a network whose majority audience is a decade or two from biting the dust.
He also is keenly aware that Barack Obama is now a two-term president in large part because young people are slanting more and more liberal. Ailes, the former presidential political operative, internalized the 2008 and 2012 exit polls as sharply as a top political operative should, and the numbers showed Obama winning the 18-29 age group by 34 points in 2008 -- and when facing a sluggish economy with many of those same 2008 younger supporters out of work, he still won the younger age demo by 24 points in 2012.
Ailes also sees that young people are making up a bigger part of the overall electorate, 19 percent in the last election. And like any political strategist, he can look beyond the quantitative data, as the eye test shows young people becoming more and more politically active, rallying against the conservative free market fetish born under Reagan, and the social extremism born under today’s Tea Party-led Republican Congress.
So, if you’re a cable news executive with an equal interest in keeping your network and preferred political party on top, these troublesome numbers leave you with two related challenges: how to win over many of these younger generation liberals to the conservative argument, and how to fix the serious problem of the senior citizen audience you’ve cultivated for 17 years soon dying off.
The solution he’s arrived at seems to begin by placing in prime time a “younger” conservative host in Kelly, shifting some of his harder news stars to do more news online, and tweeting more. Unfortunately for Ailes, all the bells and whistles in the world won’t change one underlying truth: America’s youth that advertisers crave, from young professionals to recently married 30-somethings, don’t care to watch a network obsessed with Benghazi and IRS “scandals,” in love with free market capitalism and tax breaks for the wealthy. There's an audience that loves the latest faux Obama outrage, pundits who would love nothing more than another war, and coverage favorable to social policies like the antiabortion measures being attempted all over America, or the voter suppression efforts that have been occurring since the Bush-Gore election.
But many potential young viewers are more interested in efforts to curb big banks and Wall Street, rallying outside the Texas Capitol as a state senator delivers a 13-hour filibuster to block oppressive new abortion laws, pleading with its government to get out of Afghanistan now and voting against wealthy venture capitalists in favor of populist Democrats.
At the end of the day, you can insert a slightly younger face on-screen, play musical time slots with your anchors, invest your time and resources in digital, but your network’s message is what people, old or young, gravitate toward.
Which means Roger Ailes will eventually be met with a monumental decision: change his network's DNA to a more moderate version to stave it off from extinction, or ride out into the sunset with the older folks that got him to No. 1 in the first place.