It must be stipulated at the outset that the media writ large took a nosedive in 2021 after a contentious and turbulent election caused a tsunami of apathy that had readers, viewers, and listeners tuning out in droves. Even established American newspaper titans posted smaller readership numbers, as did every broadcast and cable news outlet. The ripple effect hit digital entities like Liberty Nation as well. There was just no stopping the vast numbers of battle-worn people who decided it was much easier to tune into Sirius XM and listen to the ’70s on 7 rather than the news. So how in the name of the good Lord did Fox News manage to surface as the comeback kid while everyone else was floundering underwater, gasping for air?
Turnabout is Fair Play
That Fox News pulled off a ratings turnaround is especially astonishing when one considers that it infuriated its base with controversial election coverage. Fair or not, conservatives were more than a little ripped at the network, with many claiming to swear off watching Fox for good. How bad was it? MEDIAite reported the news outlet was in a solid third place at the start of this year:
“From January 4th to the 14th, Fox averaged around 780,000 fewer total day viewers than MSNBC and around 1 million fewer than CNN. In primetime, Fox trailed MSNBC by around 650,000 viewers and CNN by some 920,000 viewers during that same period.”
But if you look at the end of the year numbers, this spat between Fox and much of its audience turned out to be little more than a lovers’ quarrel.
Of course, some die-hards are still ripped at the network that Rupert built. However, the numbers are telling, and Fox’s statistics are, well, just damn good, considering the environment. Thus, after a slow start, Fox finished the year in first place, making it the number one cable news network in America for two solid decades.
It is even more thought-provoking that Murdoch’s news outfit accomplished such a feat while tinkering with its programmatic lineup. This is difficult to pull off because program changes often result in at least a brief ratings slump. It’s sort of like the Red Sox letting Johnny Damon go to the Yankees or the Mets’ midnight massacre of handing over longtime star Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds; you can do it, but owners will have to pay a heavy tax from dispirited fans.
Fox averaged about 1.3 million viewers daily this year, while CNN and MSNBC couldn’t even break a million. In the all-important prime time, Fox just crushed – and we do mean crushed – the competition. Take a look:
Cable Networks Average Daily Prime Time Viewers:
Fox – 2.3 million
MSNBC – 1.55 million
CNN – 1.1 million viewers
Just to rub salt in the wound, Fox managed to grab the highest ratings in the critical 25-54 age demographic, which is traditionally the number news outlets use to pull in advertisers. According to Nielsen/MRI Fusion, more Democrats watch Fox than CNN. Let’s take a moment to digest that: more Democrats watch Fox than CNN. Fox drew in 45% of those who identify as independents, with MSNBC at 31% and CNN at 24%. Another 62% of those who identify as conservative watch Fox, while MSNBC pulled in 24% and CNN a paltry 14%.
Still, in what many have labeled the “Trump slump,” 2021 did not stack up nearly as well as 2020 for those in the news business. Fox’s prime time viewership slipped 35% from the previous election year, but that wasn’t nearly as significant a drop as CNN posted, at 39%. MSNBC fared the best of the three extensive cable news networks with a rattling 28% drop. Still, the only thing that media outlets can do during off-election years is hold on tight and let the tidal wave finish. That Fox came out on top is a credit to its management. Did they listen to viewers and make changes accordingly, or did they merely cope with the times better than the rest?
One could argue they did both – and that is what made all the difference.
~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.