Last Tuesday, as President Obama was preparing to give his farewell speech, cable news and online headlines were dominated by both a CNN report suggesting the possibility that Russians had compromising material on Donald Trump, and a Buzzfeed story that revealed the unverified intelligence dossier that outlined deep ties Trump has to Russia and the potential blackmail material Vladimir Putin had on Donald Trump. Meanwhile, on the front page of Fox News’ website, not a whiff of that news could be found, as the network largely chose to ignore a story politically harmful to Donald Trump. Likewise, in October, Fox News initially downplayed the Access Hollywood tape. For several hours, it was as though Fox News was existing in an alternative universe.
Indeed, Fox News is consistently behind when it comes to stories that reflect poorly on the biggest news topic in America: Donald Trump. While traditional news outlets are quick to report any newsworthy Trump story, Fox News often leaves it to their news personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to reframe negative stories about the president-elect in Trump-friendly ways for their viewers.
It’s a formula that’s been successful for the network, which often eschews timeliness (and facts) for viewpoint. Indeed, as “fake news” has proliferated, and as Trump has sought to delegitimize other news outlets, right-wing viewers continue to look to Fox News in increasingly larger numbers to reinforce their own political biases. The result has seen a massive increase in Fox News’ bottom line. In 2015, even before the interest in Trump solidified, revenues for Fox News grew by 14 percent.
Indeed, with Donald Trump set to be inaugurated later this week amidst controversy, growing scandals, and apprehension among much of the American public, we face an uncertain future. One thing we can count on, however, is that Donald Trump will continue to generate massive interest in the news. Overall television viewership has been trending down for years, and even the once reliable NFL has seen ratings erode in 2016. However, the one area where television viewership has grown is on cable news, where the industry has seen — since Trump announced his intention to run in 2015 — a reversal in a downward slide for the first time since 2008.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the binge-watching model have been often been blamed for the falling ratings on both cable and network television, but Donald Trump should also be thrown into the mix as a leading contributor to that erosion, and cable news ratings seem to prove it.
Fox News has led the way. In 2016, in overall viewers, every single one of the top 10 cable news shows came from Fox News, led by the top personality in all of cable, Bill O’Reilly. Megyn Kelly, who recently departed Fox News for NBC, came in at number two, and both cable news shows added nearly 20 percent more viewers than in 2015. In fact, for the entire year of 2016, Fox News led all cable networks, adding 36 percent more viewers year over year while traditional entertainment networks like ESPN, USA Network, TBS, and AMC continued to bleed viewers.
It’s not just Fox News, either. Indeed, while Fox has continued to add viewers, it’s main rivals — CNN and MSNBC — have added them at an even faster rate. CNN saw a 77 percent increase in viewers in 2016, while MSNBC saw a whopping 87 percent increase. Meanwhile, AMC and FX are down 9 percent, while ESPN is down 11 percent. In fact, in October, ESPN lost over 600,000 viewers, the biggest month of losses in the network’s history.
Peak TV has an even bigger problem than competition between the 455 scripted shows in 2016. It faces stiff competition from Donald Trump, who seldom goes more than a few hours without generating oxygen-sucking headlines. Thanks to Trump, Bill O’Reilly regularly commands 4 million viewers a night in primetime. During the week, almost nothing on cable can compete with those numbers. Rachel Maddow, meanwhile, fetches about 2 million viewers a night on MSNBC, which is two times more viewers than say, FX’s critically acclaimed The Americans.
It’s also impossible to counter-program against Trump, because networks never know on what night viewers will be glued to cable news. When FX tried to launch its new Tom Hardy series Taboo last Tuesday, it faced not only competition from This Is Us on network television, but thanks to a brewing Trump scandal and Obama’s farewell address, ratings were huge for Anderson Cooper (3.6 million viewers during the same hour), Maddow (2.8 million viewers) and Sean Hannity (2.7 million). Taboo didn’t have a prayer (it was nevertheless seen by a modest 1.8 million viewers in the 18-49 demo).
Indeed, interest in television news — fueled by Donald Trump — hasn’t slowed since election day, either. Not only does Fox News continue to dominate, but Tucker Carlson — who replaced Megyn Kelly in her time-slot on Fox News — has managed to best her ratings, so far. Cable news continues to put up huge numbers in the new year, and as long as Donald Trump continues to generate headlines, that may not change. For all the dangers that Trump might pose to civil rights and international relations, cable news networks may not want it to change, either. CNN and Fox News brought in an estimated $2.5 billion in revenue in 2016, a record for the networks. Meanwhile, scripted television will continue to find it difficult to find ratings’ purchase if Donald Trump continues to disturb well-laid marketing plans. Imagine a network spending millions to promote the premiere of a new drama only to get stymied by a new development in a Trump scandal.
Conventional wisdom suggests that after the inauguration, the television landscape will begin to normalize and viewers may grow less interested in the day-to-day developments in politics, but the Trump Administration is not a conventional administration. His White House will feed off of chaos, and while that may be bad for our government (and scripted television ratings), it’s likely to keep interest in cable news growing. That may spell trouble for the next Ryan Murphy or Noah Hawley show.