Pity the poor Fox News Channel viewer.
Caricatured in the press as Ivermectin-swallowing, knuckle-dragging know-nothings, typecast by liberal politicians as addicted to the conservative “echo chamber,” and dismissed by the Twitter cognoscenti as stump-stupid dupes of Trump, Fox News devotees also serve as a reliable punchline for stand-up comedians, unfit for polite company and unqualified for political discourse.
But if you peel off the cheap mask the press and politicians have pasted onto Fox viewers’ faces, you find that they’re not so retrograde and ridiculous as they’re made out to be. You might even know some of them, or be one yourself.
Everybody knows Fox News draws Republicans the way mashed potatoes attracts gravy, but new viewership data from Nielsen MRI Fusion (written up in The Wrap, Forbes, The Hill and elsewhere) shows that the conservative outlet’s audience includes oodles of self-described younger Democrats. In October, The Wrap reports, Tucker Carlson’s primetime show was the top-rated news show among Democrats between 25-54. “In total-day viewership, Fox News grabbed 42 percent of Democrats aged 25-54, CNN nabbed 33 percent, and MSNBC got 25 percent,” The Wrap’s Lindsey Ellefson wrote. Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity and The Five ranked in the top four cable news programs with Democrats in the total viewer category.
Fox News also pulls in independents. The Nielsen data says that 58 percent of younger independents watch Fox during total-day hours, while only 25 percent tune in to CNN and just 18 percent choose MSNBC.
If you have relied exclusively on centrist and liberal media for the past two decades, during which Fox has been the No. 1 news channel, you have been browbeaten to the position that Fox dominance was made possible because its viewers are slow-witted ditto-heads, led by unscrupulous right-wing broadcasters who are eager to lap up conservative propaganda. These Nielsen results demand an explanation.
Obviously, some of these Democrats and independents are hate-watching Carlson or dialing up Hannity for a good laugh. But these numbers can’t be erased with such limited excuses. Better than CNN and MSNBC combined, Fox knows how to make zesty television. Take the career of Tucker Carlson, for example. A bright, charismatic guy, he failed to make a splash at CNN at the beginning of the century when he co-hosted Crossfire. Then his show struck out at MSNBC (2005-2008). Not until he landed at Fox in 2009 and got schooled by Roger Ailes for seven years in the arts of broadcasting did he enjoy his breakout moments.
Fox’s founding ethos, formulated by Ailes and owner Rupert Murdoch, was that an unserved conservative audience existed, ignored by other news networks and most newspapers, and that they could fill it with something akin to what Rush Limbaugh was doing on AM radio. Their formula, which depended on tabloid instincts, was more successful than either imagined. Gone was the politesse that characterized the competition and in was the two-fisted contention of a street fight. Fox does its best to seek conflict and accentuate it for the camera. It’s never going to win a Peabody, but it’s what the masses like — and clearly not just conservatives.
Liberals and independents who tune in are there for political catechism. Some may be drawn out of curiosity or pause there after stumbling onto that day’s hot Fox topic while channel surfing. Fox also appeals to some viewers (raising my hand here) because the network covers sensationalist stories that won’t appear on CNN or MSNBC unless the New York Times or Washington Post gets there first. The news can never be divorced from entertainment, and Fox is nothing if not entertaining. Some liberals must use it as a sort of political intelligence service, a way to eavesdrop on what their enemies are thinking about. During the Trump administration, the channel was a better conveyor of what the Trump movement was thinking than the Trump White House was. If you’re a liberal, you ignore Fox at your own peril.
The Nielsen finding also provides succor for ideological maverick Glenn Greenwald, who almost daily is attacked as a traitor by lefties for his scores of appearances on the network. With the Nielsen report in his hand, Greenwald can now accurately say he appears on Carlson’s show to share his wisdom with everybody, not just Republicans but Democrats and independents, who come from the choicest demographic. Carlson’s show led among Democrats in the 25-50 age group in all cable news for the month measured (October), and took third among Democrats in total viewership, The Wrap continued.
The Nielsen data serves as a programming lesson to CNN and MSNBC. If those two networks want Fox-sized audiences, maybe they should stop thinking less about ideological appeal and more about showmanship. Make the news Foxy.
“I want to see how Fox is covering this,” a family member once said to me. Send Fox scat to [email protected]. My email alerts record the PBS NewsHour and plays it back to get to sleep. My Twitter feed is the only viewer of The CBS Evening News. My RSS feed killed its TV, listens only to AM radio.