Boycotted. Criticized. But Fox News leads the pack in prime time.
By Michael M. Grynbaum
In one sense, this has been a difficult period for Fox News: a star anchor fired after being accused of sexual harassment, a lawsuit depicting a misogynist workplace, a top writer exposed as a racist internet troll, advertiser boycotts and outrage after Tucker Carlson called protesters “criminal mobs” and questioned the patriotism of a senator who lost her legs in Iraq.
In another sense, business has never been better.
In June and July, Fox News was the highest-rated television channel in the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m. Not just on cable. Not just among news networks. All of television. The average live Fox News viewership in those hours outstripped cable rivals like CNN, MSNBC and ESPN as well as broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC, according to Nielsen.
That three-hour slot is a narrow but significant slice of TV real estate, and it is exceedingly rare for a basic cable channel to outrank the Big Three broadcasters, which are available in more households and offer a wider variety of programming.
Even the return of live sports did little to stop the momentum: The Fox News programs hosted by Carlson and Sean Hannity drew more live viewers than competing baseball and basketball games, including a New York Yankees and Washington Nationals matchup on opening day.
Fox News’ big summer has been boosted by a rise in audience for news programming in general, an increase driven by interest in the pandemic, civil rights protests and the presidential election. ABC, CBS and NBC, meanwhile, have more reruns on the summer schedule; the coronavirus has suspended most TV productions; and viewers are being lured away by streaming services and on-demand Hollywood movies.
But the Fox News ratings also demonstrate the size and resilience of America’s audience for pro-Donald Trump opinion and the loyalty of Fox News viewers who shrug off the controversies that routinely swirl around the network.
“Massive news events that conservatives view through a highly partisan lens are driving the ratings, and none of the controversies really land with loyal Fox News viewers,” said Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at Columbia University and a historian of U.S. conservative media.
Lachlan Murdoch, executive chair of Fox News’ parent company, bragged on an earnings call last week about the network’s “astronomical” ratings. He also said its ad revenue was up from a year ago — a reminder that Fox News, for all the flak it takes from critics, politicians and the advertisers that fled Carlson, remains an unrivaled profit engine for the Murdoch empire.
Complaints that Fox News prime-time hosts downplayed the coronavirus — and, in the case of Laura Ingraham, encouraged the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug shown to be useless and even dangerous for COVID-19 patients — made little difference.
“The belief that hydroxychloroquine is something between a therapeutic and a miracle cure is wildly popular in conservative media, especially talk radio,” Hemmer said. “Tucker Carlson’s controversies have never really hurt his ratings, though they have cost him advertisers.”
Two days stood out when Fox News ratings fell significantly: the funerals of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died after a police officer pinned him to the ground during a routine stop, and Rep. John Lewis, the towering civil rights figure.
Like its rivals CNN and MSNBC, Fox News carried the memorial services live. During Floyd’s funeral, viewership on all three networks dipped. On both occasions, the drop in Fox News’ audience was stark, down to numbers more typically seen during overnight hours. (CNN and Mediaite previously reported on the ratings dips.)
Cable channels define prime time as 8 to 11 p.m., but the Big Three broadcasters include the 7 p.m. Sunday slot in their average prime-time audience counts. That is when “60 Minutes” airs on CBS — another news show that is hugely popular with viewers — and the broadcast networks’ definition of prime time allowed CBS to eke out a win against Fox News in June and July.
But Fox News was the king of 8 to 11 p.m., in part because conservative viewers have few options for right-wing political commentary. Smaller networks like Newsmax and One America News have tried to siphon off viewers but lag far behind.
MSNBC, whose liberal prime time is an ideological inverse to Fox News, has increased its audience from a year ago. But Rachel Maddow, once neck and neck with Hannity at 9 p.m., has fallen behind all three of Fox News’ prime-time stars in total viewers. Ingraham, who appears in the less desirable 10 p.m. slot, has drawn more viewers than Maddow for many months.
Fox News won praise this summer thanks to several newsmaking interviews with Trump, including Chris Wallace’s grilling on “Fox News Sunday” and an interview with Harris Faulkner in which Trump struggled to address racial grievances. Even Trump’s June forum with Hannity yielded headlines when the president could not name a policy priority for a second term.
But the network’s critics said the language of its prime-time hosts can be reckless. Carlson has faced a particular backlash since Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in late May sparked nationwide demonstrations for civil rights.
Major advertisers, including the Walt Disney Co., T-Mobile and Poshmark, boycotted his program as Carlson denounced the protesters as violent anarchists. Later, the host called Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a wounded veteran, a “moron” and questioned her patriotism. In recent days, Carlson called former President Barack Obama a “greasy politician” and wondered if Floyd’s death had been caused by drug use rather than being pinned to the ground by a police officer.
Carlson’s ratings have never been higher. And based on Murdoch’s telling, the boycott had little effect on Fox News’ bottom line. Carlson’s show has virtually no major sponsors, but many ads were redistributed to other programs on the network. Fox News also continues to make a fortune in so-called carriage fees, the money paid by cable and satellite providers to keep the network in their lineups.
Fox News vigorously defends itself from critics who say its news coverage is biased or its commentators are extreme. When a writer for Carlson, Blake Neff, resigned in July because of racist and sexist messages he had posted in an online forum, Fox News’ chief executive, Suzanne Scott, publicly denounced his conduct as “abhorrent.” Carlson issued a halfhearted mea culpa, saying Neff’s posts were “wrong” but also warning that his critics would be “punished.”
Murdoch was made aware of Carlson’s on-air remarks before the broadcast, according to two people with knowledge of the exchange, which was reported earlier by The Daily Beast.
CBS remains neck-and-neck with Fox News in the 8 to 11 p.m. slot and could still take the summer crown.