Fox News fell into third place among US cable current affairs broadcasters for much of January, languishing behind CNN and MSNBC as conservative viewers deserted the channel in Donald Trump’s final month in the White House.
The first week of the new year saw a mob of enraged Trump supporters stage a failed insurrection at the US Capitol in protest at his election defeat, the president’s historic second impeachment by the House of Representatives, his departure from the Oval Office and Democrat Joe Biden being sworn-in as his successor.
But despite this dramatic sequence of events, Rupert Murdoch’s network suffered its worst month since April 2000, falling into third for total day viewers and overall viewers, according to the latest Nielsen ratings tracking the period between the riot and the Mr Biden's inauguration as his successor.
Whereas CNN averaged 2.49 million weekly total viewers and MSNBC drew 1.93 million during the period, Fox secured just 1.49 million, down 18 per cent year-on-year.
It also lost out to its centrist rivals in the primetime evening slot for the first time since July 1999, as the likes of Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson failed to keep momentum under the president’s “stolen” election narrative when no evidence materialised to support that claim. And it struggled to find substantial attacks on the incoming Biden administration.
MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show was the most-watched programme in that time slot, averaging 4.2 million while Hannity fell to 3.1 million, a 19 per cent ratings decline on its January 2020 performance.
Worse, Fox also came third in attracting audiences in the 25-54 age demographic, crucial to securing future advertising commitments, a low it has not hit since October 2001.
President Trump himself appeared to play a significant role in the decline in popularity of his once-loyal mouthpiece, urging his supporters to switch allegiance to fringe competitors like Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN) as revenge for Fox’s surprise (but ultimately correct) decision to call the red state of Arizona for Mr Biden on election night when only 78 per cent of the vote had been counted.
That Arizona call sent the president and his team into a tailspin of disbelief, denial and fury, with campaign manager Jason Miller appearing on the channel to contest the verdict and both Mr Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly pursuing Mr Murdoch by phone, begging for a retraction. The 89-year-old media mogul refused.
Mr Trump’s moves to empower Newsmax and its ilk appeared to wound Fox and compounded wider concerns about its failure to remain relevant, having lost its co-founder Roger Ailes and lead anchor Bill O’Reilly to sexual harassment scandals in 2016 and now the patronage of Trumpworld.
“Never before had a network been so closely affiliated with a commander-in-chief,” wrote The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr, suggesting Fox is currently suffering “something of an identity crisis” under the current leadership of CEO Suzanne Scott and media president Jay Wallace.
“We are lost,” an insider confided to CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter.
“January was one of the biggest months of political news in a generation, yet Fox couldn't capitalise,” Mr Stelter himself observed. “Instead of competing by promoting correspondents and putting news coverage front and centre, the network prioritised ever more outrageous, ever more extreme opinion.”
Discussing the slide with The Daily Beast, one unnamed former on-air Fox personality commented: “Fox has seen ratings dips before and has always come back. But there’s no denying this is disastrous for them.
“They clearly have no plan other than to keep reshuffling the same old tired, uninteresting deck chairs, and the audience knows it. The lack of leadership, a bench, or any exciting, news-making ideas coupled with the blood-letting to Newsmax and OANN have put it in a position never seen before… There is zero doubt they are panicking behind the scenes.”
Another Fox staffer told the same publication: “This channel and everyone associated with it created a monster, preying on low-information Americans. What’s even more dangerous is that they’re angry… The programming is getting pathetically desperate to get viewers back. Seeing the bare minimum of debate on shows. It’s sad. This is a self-inflicted wound.”
Television entrepreneur Jonathan Klein placed more emphasis on the threat posed by Newsmax and OANN, saying simply: “They were out-crazied on the right.”
“One America News and Newsmax were more willing to provide the heroin that conspiracy addicts were looking for. For years, Fox has been denying climate change, denying that social inequity exists, denying that [Barack] Obama was a citizen,” he adds.
“So they’ve bred a sizable chunk of viewers who routinely deny the truth – and those viewers punished Fox News the moment they reported that Biden won Arizona, and they haven’t stopped. It’s like when that chimp you raised from a baby tears your face off.”
When reached for comment, a Fox News spokesperson pointed to data from Nielsen Media Research that showed an uptick in viewing figures in the final week of January, in which it regained the primetime top spot.
“Post-inauguration to date, Fox New Channel is the top-rated network in all of cable in primetime with total viewers,” Nielsen said. “Post-election to date, the network is up across primetime in both younger demographics versus the same time period last year.”
Of the threat posed by Newsmax, Nielsen observes: “In total day, Fox News has a 460 per cent advantage over Newsmax and a 680 per cent advantage in primetime.”
This story was updated to include Fox News's response to the Nielsen findings
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