Could it be that the nation’s infatuation with Fox News is slowly, slowly coming to an end? Looking at long-term cable ratings, you might surmise that on its way to the Tea Party, Fox has indeed jumped a shark or two.
Nothing is simple when it comes to stats or cable news, but consider: Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Greta Van Susteren have each hit their lowest point in a year or more with the key 25- to 54-year-old demo, according to the latest Nielsens. This twelve- to sixteen-month measurement is more detailed than a “year to year” comparison, which can make a show look strong or weak depending on what particular month you start from. But as a CNN press release happily notes: “May represents The O’Reilly Factor’s worst performance since January 2009, Hannity’s lowest delivery to date since taking over the time period in January 2009, and [Van Susteren’s] On the Record’s lowest since May 2009. Fox Report with Shep Smith had its lowest demo delivery since December 2008.”
O’Reilly, for instance, had some 625,000 viewers in the 25-54 age range in January 2009, built to a peak of one million by November, and dropped, to 693,000, by May 2010. Hannity and Van Susteren had similar rises and falls. Glenn Beck did not hit a twelve-month-or-more low point. But as Eric Boehlert of Media Matters points out, Beck’s numbers have fallen since his high in January, and “after twelve months of hype, Beck has not significantly grown his TV audience.”
And, by any measure, if you look at total viewership for all of Fox News, some audience-shedding is also evident. “In total day total viewers, FNC was down 6% year-to-year (while MSNBC was up 3% and CNN was down 16%),” writes Mediaite.
It’s true that Fox dwarfs MSNBC and CNN in raw audience numbers and that it’s still the number-one cable news channel, with the top eleven shows in both total viewers and the 25-54 group; O’Reilly, Beck, and Hannity still lead the pack, in that order. (Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, the nearest non-Fox hosts, are number twelve and fourteen, respectively.)
But comparing Fox ratings to themselves over a long period does show a trend that calls into question the Fox News Free-Market Theory of Journalistic Evidence: We must be right, and our version of reality must be the truest, because we have the most people watching—in other words, the market is the ultimate Decider. But that audience is currently decreasing—ergo, the market has also decided that Fox is less right and its version of reality less true than it was in the past.
Furthermore, the Fox message appears to have been ringing less true to the general public just as the Tea Party has begun to fail at the ballot box (Rand Paul in Kentucky being the one major exception), hinting that cruel reality is finally kneecapping the network’s narrative. Over the past month Tea Party candidates (or those endorsed by Palin, sometimes two competing but essentially similar things) have either lost primary contests (as in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania) or espoused views so extreme they’ve raised Democrats’ prospects for the general (like Sharron “End Social Security” Angle in Nevada, where Harry Reid has suddenly taken the lead after being out of it for a year).
Fox News analyst Angela McGlowan exemplified the double helix of contemporary conservatism, since she united both the Fox News strand and the Tea Party strand into one very wingy bid for the GOP nomination to a Congressional seat in Mississippi. After she drew only 15 percent of the vote, her selfish genes expressed themselves when she refused to endorse the winner because “he’s a RINO Republican.” This isn’t electoral politics--it’s a botched attempt at ceremonial purification.
Fox anchors and guests have been getting more irrelevant and picayune with each passing day. All those hyperventilating old standbys from the days of terror and fear, like Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and Dick Morris, are arguing harder over ever more piddly issues: Investigate Obama over Sestak and Romanoff jobs! POTUS is wearing “fancy pants” in the Gulf! He won’t even gibber with rage and burst into tears on national TV! And their hysteria over such thin gruel usually comes with a pitch of daring exclusivity: Beck frothed that only he and Fox were brave enough to show the video of the peace flotilla activists clubbing Israeli commandos, when actually, as Jon Stewart shows, the clip was all over TV like tear gas on an antiwar rally.
Such predictable, pipsqueak fury will always work for a certain percentage of the population, whose dyspeptic anger can never get enough grist to mill. But folks with normally functioning thyroid glands appear to be wilting a bit under all the shouting.
Of course, if wingers begin toting guns into town halls again this summer, or if another Scott Brown-like upset takes place, Fox ratings could surge again. Each net has its strength: CNN’s ratings popped out of the doldrums last month with the BP oil spill, as they did in the weeks after the Haitian earthquake, because CNN is the place you go for major crises, just as Fox is the place you go to hear your prejudices and frustrations echoed.
But to hold its ratings, Fox needs to do more than that. It needs to win elections, too.