Pondering ratings success

PONDERING RATINGS SUCCESS…. Reader D.R. posed a question via email the other day, and I promised him I’d respond online. He asked:

I detest Fox News (except Shepard Smith) but why are their ratings zooming so high? They are on track to have the best year ever in 2009. For the first time Olbermann has even been knocked out of top 10 prime time shows. Hell, O’Reilly’s repeat beats Olbermann’s 8pm audience by a wide margin. What can explain this?

D.R. is right that the Republican network’s ratings have soared, but I don’t think there’s too big a mystery about what happened.

Let’s consider some recent historical context. In the first quarter of 2008, Fox News, after six years of cable-news ratings dominance, saw itself slip into second place behind CNN in the so-called “money demo” — viewers in their mid-20s through mid-50s, who advertisers care about most. One year ago this week, the New York Times reported, “The most dominant cable news channel for nearly a decade and a political force in its own right, Fox has seen its once formidable advantage over CNN erode in this presidential election year, as both CNN and MSNBC have added viewers at far more dramatic rates.”

In March 2008, Time‘s James Poniewozik argued the GOP network that saw its ratings plateau as Republican officials in D.C. faltered, was in big trouble in the future. At the time, I argued the opposite. Here’s a post I wrote 16 months ago, talking about the road to Fox News’ recovery:

[W]ho watches Fox News? Angry, conservative partisans who want a nationalistic network that tells them what they want to hear…. Yes, FNC’s ratings have slipped, but consider the landscape — Bush isn’t governing (he’s a lame-duck with no policy agenda), Congress isn’t up to much (thanks to GOP filibusters and White House vetoes), the war in Iraq continues to be a disaster (Republicans haven’t yet found a liberal scapegoat to blame this on), and the economy has come to a halt. There’s just not much for Fox News to tell Republican activists. Even the GOP nomination fight turned out to be rather dull.

But then imagine how thrilled they’ll be if Dems control the House, Senate, and White House. Fox News and its audience are their most content when they have a target for their rage. These guys want someone to be mad at, and come January 2009, they’ll have no shortage of options.

Poniewozik added: “News on Fox looks like a video game, full of bluster, blondes and blaring graphics. Ideology aside, Fox makes the news urgent, even when nothing’s going on.”

True, but an Obama/Pelosi/Reid triumvirate [in 2009] practically guarantees that plenty will be going on, and Fox News and its loyal Republican audience will be pissed about it.

It might be the best thing to ever happen to the network.

I’ve had plenty of predictions that didn’t pan out, but this one stands up pretty well 16 months later.

The presidential election was a boon to CNN and MSNBC, but that’s faded. Now, mainstream news consumers are spread out among a variety of cable and broadcast networks, not to mention print and online outlets. Angry and suddenly-motivated Republican partisans, meanwhile, want one easily-accessible network to tell them how awful the governing party is. Sure, enough, they have a reinvigorated propaganda outlet to turn to, and they’re tuning in in large numbers.