Nine years ago, when FoxNews sprinted past CNN to become America's number one news network, I attributed its ratings gains to the election of George Bush and the triumph of Fox-watching conservatives. I figured conservatives would be savoring their victory while liberals were averting their eyes in disgust. For the next eight years, I measured political sentiment in the United States by comparing the size of the FoxNews audience with the combined size of the CNN/MSNBC audience. In this space, I even predicted, with reasonable accuracy, the percent by which Barack Obama won the election based on the split in the news audience.
Now, seven months after Barack Obama's victory, CNN's ratings have gone down the drain. From May of last year to May of this year, CNN lost 22% of its total primetime audience. MSNBC was down 2%, while FoxNews was up 24%. In the key advertising demographic (25-54), Fox was up 31%, CNN was down 37% and MSNBC was down 26%. In hard numbers, Fox had 109,000 more viewers than last year while CNN lost 113,000. CNN averaged fewer than 200,000 25-54 viewers in primetime. Even MSNBC averaged more viewers than that.
Total day was nearly as bad, with Fox up 24% and CNN down 7%. MSNBC was down 2% in total viewing. Fox is beating CNN almost two-to-one in most categories.
There's no need to throw any more numbers at you--Fox is gaining, CNN is wilting. Why is this happening when the country still seems about 58-42 in favor of Obama? My best guess is the passion of those who detest Democrats, liberals, and in particular, Barack Obama.
Conservatives seem so angry at their loss, so ready to blame Obama for all their problems that almost 400,000 more of them are watching FoxNews this year than they did last year. I think they turn to Fox for comfort and confirmation. They need to hear the ranters and ravers tell them that it's not their fault, it's all because of those "Socialist Democrats." I have believed for years that it's "comfort and confirmation" that drove conservatives to talk radio. Now it's television, too.
I had thought better of the television audience, particularly younger viewers who tended to watch CNN and MSNBC. But even that's gone now--Fox leads in 18-49 year-olds.
Here are the best excuses I can think of: maybe a lot of middle-of-the-roaders have just tuned out on all the cable news noise. Maybe other people have better things to do with their lives than listen to pandering pundits. Maybe more generous souls accept that Obama's doing the best he can in a very tough job, and they don't want to hear the details because they know the stars are not shining on America right now.
But, then again, maybe all of the above are wrong. Maybe it's simply the need for an enemy, the desire to detest is greater than the power to tolerate; maybe it's the need to blame somebody else for the bad things that are happening in our lives that drives viewers to Fox. Perhaps those viewers are the next generation of the rich socialites in the old New Yorker cartoon, who dressed up to go to the newsreel theatre and hiss FDR. Only now they can do it at home, watching FoxNews. Maybe the joy of defeat is underestimated.