Fox’s attachment to Donald Trump has resulted in a big slide in its ratings. That, according to Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik, is probably its biggest problem right now and that is on top of the multiple lawsuits and programming changes.
On Reliable Sources today, host John Berman asked guests Zurawik and author and professor Nicole Hemmer, “What does the future look like for Fox News?”
Zurawik did not mince words.
ZURAWIK: The worst problem for them is the ratings. … Now we’ve got a situation where Fox is third in prime time in the key demographic of 25-54. And they’ve had this massive turnover of their prime time lineup and the company is facing all these lawsuits, all of these other problems. I think this ratings business is a real problem and here’s the danger. The only thing Fox has going for it right now is, they think, is to be the place if you voted for Trump and you want to see positive coverage, you come to them. They’re hitching their wagon totally to this mercurial, erratic president. If he goes down in flames, what’s left at Fox right now? I really think this is a dangerous time.
You know for years I’d call them up with stories, and say, “You know, you did this and it’s really bad journalistically, what’s your response?” And they’d go, “The ratings are great. We’re number one. Everybody loves us.” They can’t say that any more. Now they can’t explain their journalism away by saying they have great ratings. They don’t have ‘em any more. That’s the real thing that has to be frightening the Murdoch brothers right now.
Hemmer noted that Fox’s prime time has been ignoring much of the breaking news about Trump. “That’s something they’re going to need to address,” she warned, “because people are turning to cable news to follow these big breaking stories.”
I’d add that recently Fox has nominally covered the breaking Trump news but without any kind of seriousness. For example, one Fox “expert,” billed as a "comedian and social commentator," assured viewers nobody cares about Trump leaking intelligence to Russia. Host Brian Kilmeade cut off a former CIA analyst mid-sentence as she debunked a Trump conspiracy theory about the agency. And host Jesse Watters dismissed Russiagate as a “boring scandal” because there’s no video, no sex, no money and no dead bodies.
Part of Fox’s problem is also that Republicans are not exactly jumping at the chance to defend Trump on the air. Last week, after news broke about Jim Comey’s memo saying that Trump had asked him not to investigate former national security adviser Michael Flynn, not a single Republican member of Congress was willing to talk on the air to Fox News’ Special Report. During the next show, The Story, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy pointedly gave effusive praise for Comey while remaining mostly silent about Trump.
Watch what might be keeping the Murdoch brothers up at night below, from the May 21, 2017 Reliable Sources.
President Trump’s followers voted for red meat and what they’ve been getting is over-cooked hamburger. Even the most rabid among them is uncomfortable with that and the Fox strategy is starting to put salt on the wounds.
Other than Hannity, Fox News has lost its prime time stars. Worse for Fox, it’s far easier and more entertaining to be a critic. Playing Trump’s apologist costs them their edge and ability to drive the outrage of their fanboys towards the black bogeyman Obama.
The reality of Trump isn’t nearly as satisfying for many Fox establishment Republican fans as the reality of the incompetent in power. A few I know have already expressed their disgust. Differentiating Fox’s experience during the Dubya years.
I can’t figure out what his goal is. Does he think this will save his sagging ratings?
And what’s with the now nightly appearances of that utter nonentity Jay Sekulow?
The first is that they’re going all-in, at least during prime time throughout the week, to cheerlead for the most unpopular White House since the darkest days of the W and Nixon administrations. That’s great for the people who already agree with them but doesn’t work for even the Republicans who have issues with Trump, and there are plenty of those. In the years of W, Fox News could count on Republicans closing ranks around him. In the current situation, people are a lot warier about the Pence White House, and with good reason.
Also, the complete marriage of Fox News to the people now generating real scandals in the White House is something that will come back to bite them hard as the investigations multiple and bear fruit. As much as the Right Wing tries to stick their fingers in their ears and yell “La-La-La, I can’t hear you!”, these are real problems that aren’t going away. And unlike the phony smears they attempted to throw at President Obama’s presidency, these have real teeth and real consequences. I really don’t know what Fox News will do to cover themselves when people start to go to jail. How will Hannity deal with that one? Trot out another bogus story about Seth Rich?
And the second problem is that Fox News has been effectively forced into updating its lineup in a much faster and more drastic way than it would have preferred. When they added Megyn Kelly to prime time, that was an addition that supplemented and buttressed what they already had going. It meant that they juggled Greta and Hannity to new slots and gave Kelly the plum position of having O’Reilly as her lead-in. Unsurprisingly, this led to her getting better ratings, and it probably strengthened their lineup. And then Greta left the network, which didn’t hurt them a lot due to having Brit Hume take over for a while before handing that timeslot to Carlson. Flash forward to the top of 2017 and suddenly Megyn Kelly herself leaves the lineup, forcing the network to push Martha MacCallum into the Greta slot and juggle Carlson. Flash forward again to April and suddenly O’Reilly himself is gone, and he was the lynchpin of the lineup. So within a short time, Fox News has replaced ¾ of its primetime, and viewers who were partial to O’Reilly, Kelly and even Greta no longer have a reason to tune in. Greta’s viewers can now see her at 6pm on MSNBC, which means she’s pulling some of them from Bret Baer’s news/opinion show. Kelly’s viewers are standing by to watch her on NBC when she finally debuts there. The biggest blow has been with O’Reilly’s viewers, who really don’t have anyone like him left on the air at Fox News, so they’ve had to go cold turkey with Tucker. It’s not a surprise that many of them don’t really like Tucker and aren’t willing to spend an hour with him every night – so they’re choosing to just go to O’Reilly’s website and perhaps they’ll listen to Beck’s radio show once a week, provided they can tolerate Beck’s continuing bizarre behavior.
In a way, Fox News is facing a Perfect Storm. They’ve backed an unpopular and scandal-plagued administration that is quickly capsizing, and they’ve replaced their most popular prime time hosts with shows that don’t attract as many people (and won’t, based on the trends). That’s on top of the already serious problems Fox News and the GOP are facing with an increasingly elderly constituency. I’ve said this repeatedly, but it’s important to remember – the Pence White House is acting as quickly as it can, not just because the people are smug and vicious, but because they know they don’t have much time to do these things before they will lose their opportunity. The same reasoning applies to Fox News. They went for the quick fix but will wind up in a serious hole within the next year or two. As the coverage and ratings are showing us, the major decline has already begun.