Newsmax May Not Destroy Fox News, but Will Annoy the Shit Out of It
The fringe right-wing cable network finally took the Fox News behemoth down a peg, but how long will it actually last?
After years of cultivating enough fringe clout to take on Fox News, rival conservative network Newsmax TV has finally found some success, eating into the most-viewed outlet’s ratings enough to put a scare in them.
But the question media observers ask heading into the new year: How long can it actually last?
Newsmax toiled in the basement—both in terms of ratings and its amateurish production value—for a decade before gaining mainstream notoriety and hundreds of thousands of new daily viewers after the 2020 election, thanks to its full embrace of MAGA election denialism.
Openly seizing upon outgoing President Donald Trump’s rage towards Fox News—for its early projection of Joe Biden winning Arizona and, a few days later, the White House—and the throngs of disillusioned right-wing media consumers chanting “Fox News sucks!” outside election offices and across social media, Newsmax has made it a point to go all-in on voter-fraud conspiracy theories and “stolen election” claims.
With a beefed-up on-air roster featuring ex-Fox News stars, MAGA castaways, and right-wing hangers-on, Newsmax made a naked appeal to the president and his most loyal fans, declaring it would not project the election for Biden, regardless of reality. (An odd and ultimately performative boast, considering Newsmax does not have a decision news desk that would normally make such calls.)
The strategy paid immediate dividends for Newsmax, as the network, which just months before had struggled to pull 10,000 viewers during some hours, suddenly saw an exponential growth in its viewership. And a good portion of those eyeballs seemed to have migrated over from Fox News.
Comparing pre-election (Sept. 28 to Nov. 1) ratings to those after the election (Nov. 9 to Dec. 17), Newsmax has seen staggering growth across all of its time slots, while Fox News suffered double-digit declines for every weekday show between 6 a.m. and 12 a.m ET. Newsmax’s biggest surge came especially between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., the hours leading into the primetime programming that sustains so much of cable-news programming.
During those early evening slots, Newsmax saw its total audience increase by an astonishing 497 percent, or 502,000 viewers. While both CNN (14 percent) and MSNBC (4 percent) also enjoyed slight post-election viewership bumps, Fox News experienced a decline of 38 percent and 1.3 million total viewers during that span.
Nowhere is the Fox’s ratings leakage more apparent than in its “hard news” hours of 6 to 8 p.m, featuring Special Report with Bret Baier and The Story with Martha MacCallum, respectively. Baier’s program, for instance, lost 39 percent of its audience while Newsmax’s Spicer and Co. gained 667 percent. MacCallum’s show, meanwhile, dropped 44 percent of its viewership after the election while ardent Trump sycophant and ex-Fox host Greg Kelly picked up 486 percent over on Newsmax.
And in a moment that likely set off the most alarms for Fox News, Kelly actually pulled out a head-to-head ratings victory against MacCallum on Dec. 9, outdrawing The Story in the key ad demographic of viewers aged 25-54, with 239,000 Nielsen households compared to her 203,000. In recent weeks, Kelly’s show has at times pulled in a million total viewers. Prior to the election, he had a tough time drawing even 100,000 total viewers or 10,000 of them in the key demographic.
The daytime hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. have also been leaky for Fox News, which has lost 39 percent of its total viewership in that time, while Newsmax has welcomed a 455-percent increase. CNN, for its part, saw its daytime ratings climb 18 percent while MSNBC remained flat post-election. (CNN has also led in total day ratings, both in overall and demo viewership, since Election Day.)
Newsmax, however, has come a bit back to earth. The network is down 27 percent in total viewers compared to the first two weeks after the election. At the same time, the other networks have also experienced similar drops.
And Fox News ultimately finished 2020 as the top-rated basic cable network with the highest-rated year in cable-news history. But it experienced other late-year trends perhaps worthy of alarm: Fox & Friends, long the early-morning ratings king, lost 35 percent of its viewers post-election while its rival, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, won the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot six weeks in a row.
In other words, using a tortured metaphor: Newsmax cut just enough off Fox News’ legs to put it in danger of occasionally being brought down to the level of its main competitors.
Despite its intense ratings spike, Newsmax’s viewership still only represents a fraction of Fox News’ daily audience, comparing more favorably to business cable channels like CNBC and Fox Business.
And Fox insiders insist that beyond its recent growth, Newsmax doesn’t represent any real threat to the Murdoch empire’s crown jewel.
“Fox will slowly climb back, not to election-year levels, but they almost do better when they are fighting uphill when it’s us against the world, those crazy liberals,” a person familiar with the inner workings of Fox News told The Daily Beast. “I think the whole playing field is going to come down.”
“The election has exposed rifts between the hard right and reality. Trump has 25 or 30 million people who will believe really whatever he says,” one source told The Washington Post in mid-December. “The concern probably is the short term—you could have a brief time where Trump really turns some people against us. Long term, I don’t think these competitors are positioned to really beat Fox.”
During early-December’s UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference, meanwhile, Fox Corporation CFO Steve Tomsic directly addressed the matter of Newsmax’s rising ratings. “We don't have a hubris bone in our body, so we don't take lightly the potential for competition, whether it's the existing sort of classic MSNBC or CNN, or the sort of emerging ones like Newsmax and OANN,” he said, adding the following warning to new competitors: “People take the simplistic view that Fox News is three hours of primetime, Monday through Friday. The service and the actual business is so much broader than that.”
Still, the fact that Fox News has—at least for the time being—fallen back to the levels of CNN and MSNBC hasn’t been lost on management, and has seemingly resulted in a noticeably hard-right and opinion-oriented editorial shift at the network, especially during its supposedly more “straight news” hours.
In mid-November, Fox News announced it would expand the “reporting and analysis” from Tucker Carlson’s top-rated, far-right primetime show to other parts of the network. Since then, the network’s so-called “hard news” shows have featured more segments centered around monologues and opinion commentary not only from Carlson’s program, but the other primetime opinion shows.
Furthermore, especially among the network’s more overtly pro-Trump personalities, there has been a noticeable push to embrace election denialism, lending credence to some of the most outlandish election-fraud conspiracies being peddled by the president and his allies—all despite the network’s news desk reporting such claims to be false.
This has included giving Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and his on-again-off-again crank sidekick Sidney Powell ample airtime to blare unfounded claims about corrupt voting software engineered to steal millions of votes from Trump.
The president, meanwhile, has continued to publicly bash his one-time favorite network, blaming them for his election loss and while celebrating their ratings declines, especially among the daytime hours that he has long believed to be biased against him simply for the crime of reporting the news.
Trump has also claimed that "people at the highest levels of Fox" have reached out to his team in an effort to mend the supposedly broken relationship, something he has expressed no desire in pursuing at the moment. “He wants to make them pay,” a source told Axios, adding that the president is extremely focused on Fox’s struggling ratings of late.
But the war between Fox News and Newsmax (and their far-right competitor One America News) to see who can go the farthest with the undemocratic election lies may ultimately prove too costly for the smaller outlets to keep up.
Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, the two voting software companies at the center of Trumpworld’s unhinged election conspiracies, have both signaled to the White House and its right-wing media allies that they could face legal action in 2021 over the lies and false claims being spread about the companies’ involvement in the election.
Smartmatic, which has been accused of conspiring with long-dead dictator Hugo Chávez and liberal philanthropist George Soros to flip the election, has taken the most concrete action thus far, issuing letters to Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN threatening legal action and demanding full on-air retractions of all such claims.
First Amendment lawyers believe that these cases will have merit, and the networks have responded as such.
Fox filmed a fact-check segment with an election systems specialist debunking claims about Smartmatic made by some of the network’s own hosts and then aired it across three separate programs. Newsmax, meanwhile, published a lengthy point-by-point statement debunking the numerous falsehoods made on its airwaves about Smartmatic and Dominion, which Powell and other Trump figures have conflated and accused of working together to “rig” the election via algorithms.
One Newsmax host named John Tabacco publicly complained about “being bullied” into reading the statement (and called upon kooky former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne to swoop in and save the day), but the network has stood firm in its pivot. The retraction was read multiple times on-air and CEO Chris Ruddy has made it known that, after a month of refusing to do so, the network will now refer to Joe Biden as the president-elect after the Electoral College confirmed the votes.
But it appears that Newsmax (along with Fox, OAN, and others) are still looking down the barrel of potential litigation.
In late December, high-powered defamation law firm Clare Locke warned Newsmax, Fox News, and OAN of their intent to pursue lawsuits against the networks on behalf of Dominion. “I think it’s fair to say in January we will be pulling the trigger on multiple litigation matters. The damage that they’ve done has already been enormous,” attorney Tom Clare told The Daily Beast. “The time for a retraction is not now, it was weeks ago. I’m certain a retraction does not undo the damage but it’s the right thing regardless of litigation.”
A Dominion executive has already filed a separate lawsuit against Giuliani, Powell, OAN, and Newsmax over claims personally accusing him of rigging the election against Trump. Dominion itself is not a part of that suit.
Elsewhere, Eric Coomer, the director of product strategy and security for Dominion, seeks damages as well as a public retraction in a lawsuit he deemed “an effort to unwind as much of the damage as possible done to me, my family, my life, and my livelihood as a result of the numerous false public statements that I was somehow responsible for ‘rigging’ the 2020 presidential election.”
The fact that Fox News, a well-funded network with billions of dollars in revenue, is taking the threat of lawsuits seriously enough ultimately doesn’t bode well for Newsmax.
By his own admission, network CEO Ruddy is still personally investing money into Newsmax to keep it competitive. According to The New York Times, the television network is currently losing money despite $70 million worth of investments between 2014 and 2017. This would appear to be due to Ruddy paying cable providers to put Newsmax on their lineups. “It’s not unusual for companies to do that when they start out,” Ruddy told the Times without specifically describing his own arrangements.
Ruddy “doesn’t need to compete with Fox,” a person familiar with Newsmax’s operations told The Daily Beast, “he needs to be perceived as competing with Fox.” The insider added that the Newsmax CEO is “really good at marketing” and all he “cares about is promoting [the network] to get investment money to sell it.”
“Newsmax is a grift,” Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at liberal watchdog Media Matters, told Vox in late December. “The thing you have to understand about Newsmax is that it’s an unprofitable TV business that’s welded onto a very profitable digital and newsletter business.”
Gertz was referencing the fact that Newsmax actually began in 1998 as a center-right digital news site, largely focused on anti-Clinton content at the time. It quickly rose to prominence in the following decades and experienced huge traffic growth, eventually resulting in the 2014 launch of its TV network.
But even the website’s success has waned in recent years. “At one point [Ruddy] had 10-12 million [unique views] to the site and he could make money on it and people looked at it and saw it was garbage with no original reporting and now it’s down to 1m or 2m uniques,” the source familiar further noted to The Daily Beast.
At the same time, Ruddy has expressed perhaps deluded confidence that Newsmax can pass Fox News as the primary destination for conservative viewers.
“The big story is why we will overtake Fox News quicker than anyone imagined,“ he declared to The Daily Beast late last month. “Revenues on cable and OTT television will be more robust and consistent than the online business for the next 10 years,” he told the Times.
Still, even if Newsmax can weather the threat of lawsuits, the specter of hard litigation could push Ruddy to pump the brakes on peddling the outrageous lies and baseless conspiracies that helped attract so many new viewers and put pressure on Fox News in the first place.
The cases brought up by Dominion and Smartmatic are “extremely powerful” as the “repeated accusations against both companies are plainly defamatory and surely have done enormous reputational and financial harm to both,” famed constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams told The New York Times. “It is far too early to predict how the cases, if commenced, will end,” he added. “But it is not too early to say that they would be highly dangerous to those sued.”
Times media columnist Ben Smith echoed such sentiments, telling MSNBC last month: “This is a case where for two of the companies—for OAN and Newsmax—it’s a huge threat. Right now, they’re burning money. They’re trying to create a new Fox, to the right of Fox. They need to keep raising money. And it’s very hard to raise money if you have a huge defamation claim hanging over you.”
But ultimately the greatest risk to Ruddy’s vision of making Newsmax a profitable player in the cable news world isn’t so much the lawsuits as the finicky nature of conservative media consumers.
For as much as Newsmax is trying to feed disgruntled Trump supporters shamelessly large portions of comfort food, what happens when the president is officially no longer the president and even Greg Kelly can’t pretend the election can still be overthrown? Or even worse, what happens when the influx of Newsmax viewers simply grows bored with a rigid set of talking points repeated by a small handful of less-than-charming personalities broadcasting from poorly lit studios with none of the glamorous, high-gloss on-air polish of Fox News?
“I don’t think the programming is set up right,” Jami Salamida, a former Fox viewer who recently flipped to Newsmax, told The Washington Post. “They’re basically just playing the same couple of shows all day long.”
“It’s boring, a little bit, but I’m dedicated,” another new viewer admitted to the Post. “I’ll keep watching it until it gets better.”
In the end, however, some believe Ruddy will be satisfied no matter the outcome, so long as he retains proximity to power.
“He likes prancing around and being perceived that ‘I’m not as big as them, but I’m in the club,’” the Newsmax insider said. “He’s like a jock sniffer.”