Fox News Ratings Free Fall Is a ‘Self-Inflicted Wound,’ Insiders Say
The network fell behind CNN and MSNBC in key ratings figures for the first time in 20 years—a remarkable nosedive that has staffers worried and critics gloating.
Signaling a seismic shift in the media landscape as defeated former president Donald Trump hibernates in strangely silent exile at Mar-a-Lago, Fox News’ two-decade-long winning streak came to an abrupt end Tuesday while rivals CNN and MSNBC claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, respectively, in all of cable television.
Fox News’ embarrassing third-place showing is the continuation of a downward trend in which the right-leaning outlet lost 2020’s fourth quarter to CNN and alienated Trump-supporting loyal viewers by calling Arizona early for Joe Biden during its Election Night coverage.
This unwelcome development is predictably prompting internal panic among staffers, who fear it will result in additional job losses after recent layoffs—and gloating among detractors.
“Fox has seen ratings dips before and has always come back. But there’s no denying this is disastrous for them,” said a former on-air Fox News personality, asking not to be further identified.
“They were out-crazied on the right,” said television entrepreneur Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, noting that two of Fox News’ further-right competitors benefited from viewers’ post-election anger. “One America News and Newsmax were more willing to provide the heroin that conspiracy addicts were looking for.”
Klein added: “For years, Fox has been denying climate change, denying that social inequity exists, denying that Obama was a citizen. So they’ve bred a sizable chunk of viewers who routinely deny the truth—and those viewers punished Fox News the moment they reported that Biden won Arizona, and they haven’t stopped. It’s like when that chimp you raised from a baby tears your face off. Now the question is what is Rupert Murdoch willing to do to get them back?”
The nearly 90-year-old Australia-born media baron, who launched the channel with Roger Ailes in 1996, has been increasingly hands-on in the operation of Fox News in recent weeks as ratings troubles became apparent—and was a key decision-maker in last month’s sweeping daytime programming and talent shakeup.
“I should think Rupert Murdoch is very angry indeed,” said television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “But that’s different than actually doing anything about it,” he added, noting that Murdoch turns 90 next month and is hardly in a position to provide the day-to-day management that Fox News sorely needs.
Tyndall added: “Fox has been rudderless since Ailes left”—a reference to the cable channel’s late, disgraced chairman whom Murdoch reluctantly forced out in July 2016 amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct in the wake of longtime anchor Gretchen Carlson’s shocking lawsuit. Ailes died in May 2017. “They’ve been living on an inherited formula and haven’t adjusted with the times,” Tyndall said. “They’ve been particularly unable to replicate Ailes’ discipline in straddling both sides of the divide—being a journalistic organization and being a propaganda organization. He managed to finesse that, and his successors have not.”
The former Fox News personality, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast: “They clearly have no plan other than to keep reshuffling the same old tired, uninteresting deck chairs, and the audience knows it. The lack of leadership, a bench, or any exciting, news-making ideas coupled with the blood-letting to Newsmax and OANN have put it in a position never seen before for FNC. There is zero doubt they are panicking behind the scenes and, worse yet, don’t have Roger Ailes to solve it.”
Current Fox News staffers fixed blame on, among others, former Ailes lieutenant Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News Media for the past two years, and Fox News Media President Jay Wallace, who reports to Scott.
“There is no grand plan for getting out of the toilet and if there is, no one knows about it,” one network insider said. “Suzanne and Jay are making it up as they go along. This is when lack of leadership is most evident.”
“[Scott] is not going to have as many lives as Roger did,” predicted one staffer who, like others who spoke to The Daily Beast, asked not to be named out of concern for possible corporate reprisals. “We are victims of our own success,” this staffer added, noting that Fox News’ election coverage precipitated the ratings slide. “We conditioned our viewers to expect their daily dose of affirmation, and once we painted ourselves into a corner and could no longer do so, they jumped ship to other outlets that will tell them what they want to hear.
“This channel and everyone associated with it created a monster, preying on low-information Americans. What’s even more dangerous is that they’re angry… The programming is getting pathetically desperate to get viewers back. Seeing the bare minimum of debate on shows. It’s sad. This is a self-inflicted wound.”
Nielsen ratings for the month of January—during which rioting Trump supporters staged a lethal insurrection at the United States Capitol and Biden was inaugurated the 46th president—show Fox News trailing in third place in total day and overall viewers for the first time since April 2000. In the advertiser-friendly ages 25-to-54 demographic, the right-leaning outlet hasn’t been third for total day since October 2001, according to Nielsen.
And Fox News primetime hasn’t lost to CNN and MSNBC in total viewers since July 1999—and not in the advertising demo since August 2001. In dayside, meanwhile, Fox’s third-place finish in the demo was its first since July 2001 while it hadn’t been in the basement in total viewers since January 2000.
For the month of January, meanwhile, CNN had its most-watched month on record and finished first across the board, leading in total viewers and the key 25-54 demographic in all major Monday-Sunday day parts. While CNN experienced triple-digit growth compared to a year ago in primetime, total day and dayside, Fox News was down double digits versus last January in all categories, including a 20 percent drop in total day viewers overall.
MSNBC, for its part, placed second in all major Monday-Sunday categories while seeing double-digit growth in total viewers and the key demo across all dayparts compared to a year ago. MSNBC also boasted the top-watched cable news program in The Rachel Maddow Show, averaging 4.2 million total viewers for the month, up 43 percent from January 2020. Her Fox competition at 9 p.m., Hannity, was down 19 percent while averaging 3.1 million viewers overall. MSNBC also finished first in total viewers during weekday primetime, averaging 3.4 million.
Dayside is where Fox struggled against its cable-news competition the most. While CNN averaged 2.499 million weekly total viewers and MSNBC drew 1.933 million, Fox pulled up the rear with a total viewership of 1.492 million, down 18 percent from a year ago.
Yet, amid the bad stats, Fox News insiders claimed to see a ray of hope.
While Fox News has suffered a humiliating and historic ratings defeat for the month of January, they noticed some leveling-off and CNN falling back to earth following the Jan. 20 inauguration—an event for which CNN attracted record viewership while Fox News suffered a 77 percent drop from its coverage of Trump’s 2017 swearing-in.
After the inauguration, Fox News regained its No. 1 ranking in Monday-Sunday primetime total viewers, averaging an audience of 2.521 million. During the Monday-Friday primetime slot, meanwhile, Fox is just behind MSNBC with 2.940 million viewers overall. Fox is also second in the 25-54 demographic in both Monday-to-Sunday and Monday-to-Friday primetime.
CNN, meanwhile, has suffered a noticeable decline in the days following Biden’s first day in office. After the inauguration, the network has been down 25 percent in total day viewership and 33 percent in primetime total viewers compared to CNN’s post-election boom.
Multiple insiders told The Daily Beast that CNN’s precipitous drop in viewership following both the Capitol riots and Biden’s inauguration has quieted some of the panic at Fox—largely over a feeling that the status quo will return.
Yet, following the inauguration, Fox News has remained in third place in several significant categories. Notably, the daytime lineup—which was recently overhauled to emphasize conservative opinion over news—continues to trail behind MSNBC and CNN, placing third across the board in both Monday-Sunday and weekday.
Furthermore, while Fox overtook its competition in primetime during the final week of the month, compared to a year ago the network witnessed declines that were greater than the month overall. For instance, in total dayside viewers, Fox was down 45 percent and also saw a 26 percent drop in total primetime viewers versus last year.
CNN, for its part, was still up 54 percent in primetime total viewership compared to a year ago while MSNBC saw 13 percent growth in the final week.
Andrew Tyndall, for one, said viewers’ intense interest over the past year in ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has also advantaged CNN over Fox News—whose prime-time stars, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, have been trafficking in denialism and misinformation about the potentially lethal virus.
“It was a very difficult trick that Roger Ailes pulled off, and I’ve seen no evidence that anybody has come close to even knowing what the trick is—let alone managing to do it,” Tyndall said. “They’ve been on automatic pilot since he was fired.”
On the other hand, Fox News has advantages over such outlets as Newsmax and OANN, and could very well lure back some of the disaffected viewership, he added, “because they are a professional organization. They know how to make it visually interesting and how to write headlines, and they’ve got big personalities that people will watch.
“They’ve been losing audience to amateurs.”
Diana Falzone was an on-camera and digital reporter for FoxNews.com from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.