You could call it destiny that Roger Ailes departed Fox News on the same day Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination. Like the Republican Party, Fox now finds itself at a crossroads amid a crisis of leadership.
On the one hand, the network liberals love to hate rakes in a reported $1.5 billion a year in profit for parent company 21st Century Fox, making it far more profitable than chief rivals CNN and MSNBC. And its winning streak in total viewer leadership now stands at 14 years. Clearly, the Murdoch clan will be hesitant to tinker too much with a formula that’s made Fox the dominant force in cable news for more than a decade.
But time marches on, and the network is showing its age. Literally. Fox News’ audience is the oldest of the news networks, with a median age of 68. And unlike its rivals, Fox has been slow to embrace digital extensions and storytelling tools. It’s hard to say which is the chicken and which the egg in this scenario, but clearly the biological clock is ticking.
Stacey Schulman, EVP of strategy, analytics and research at Katz Media Group, told me this week that she doesn’t expect the Murdoch family to make wholesale changes quite yet. (Rupert is now chairman and acting CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, but sons James and Lachlan are understood to be largely in control.) "At some point I think the Murdochs will want to put their own fingerprints on it," she said, "but for right now this piece of the Fox Empire is a huge part of their revenue. So they are going to be very reticent not to mess with it at first because they want to show that they can keep it running and keep it profitable."
But "some change is inevitable," said Schulman, citing CNN’s increased reliance on its website and mobile apps, which offer additional venues to get their content out to younger viewers. "My recommendation would be to ramp up the digital effort, which would not alienate the core viewers tuning in the traditional way."
Like it or not, some change may come sooner than later. High-profile talent like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly (who was reportedly among those to accuse Ailes of harassment) are believed to have exit clauses in their contracts allowing them to leave if Ailes is no longer in the picture. So expect some intrigue around the fates of these highly coveted personalities.
But reverse-aging Fox — or any cable news net — is a challenge that goes beyond a change of talent. "No news network is ever going to skew young; that is just the nature of this type of programming," noted Rob Russo, president of RNR Consulting. (For the record, he, too, does not foresee any immediate changes at Fox News.)
CNN and MSNBC have had some luck in this department, however. When Jeff Zucker took leadership of CNN in 2012, the network was mired in third place behind Fox News and MSNBC, so his challenge was grow overall viewership. Zucker’s solution was to introduce a more diverse mixture of primetime news, documentaries and original series, which also ended up lowering the network’s median age (58 this year versus 60 last year).
That formula has produced hits and misses, of course. (Worst, perhaps, was introducing "Today" show-like "New Day" in the morning). But CNN now ranks No. 2 behind Fox News this season in primetime in total viewers and target adults 25 to 54 (and ahead of MSNBC, HLN and CNBC. See chart below). And it ranks first in adults 18 to 49.
Fox has not been totally absent in the hunt for digital relevance. This month, it is streaming video on Facebook during both the Republican and Democratic conventions, and it held a live Q&A on Facebook during the GOP debate last summer. But these are mere rumblings of a digital awakening; what the Murdochs might do should they decide truly to chase younger viewers is hard to say.
It’s an axiom of political life that "younger" often means "liberal." It’s no coincidence that Fox is both the most right-wing network and the one with the oldest audience. One radical plan of action could be to welcome those liberal-minded viewers with additional anchor support if Hillary Clinton wins. With speculation that Trump is planning to start his own news network if he doesn’t win the election, it’s a decision that may not seem so outlandish after November.
The Cable News Networks By the Numbers in Primetime
2016-17 to-Date (though 7/21/16)
- Total Viewers:
Fox News: 2.17 million, CNN: 1.14 million, MSNBC: 842,000, CNBC: 403,000, HLN: 331,000
- Adults 25-54:
Fox News: 412,000, CNN: 372,000, MSNBC: 208,000, CNBC: 160,000, HLN: 115,000
- Adults 18-49:
CNN: 309,000, Fox News: 293,000, MSNBC: 152,000, CNBC: 150,000, HLN: 90,000
- Adults 50+:
Fox News: 1.83 million, CNN: 1.14 million, MSNBC: 842,000, CNBC: 403,000, HLN: 331,000
Source: Nielsen Media Research