Ratings are dropping for Fox News, America’s usual No. 1 cable news broadcaster. After a series of sexual harassment scandals that led to the ouster of star anchor Bill O’Reilly and founder Roger Ailes, who recently died, the network is now being edged out of rankings in key primetime demographics by MSNBC and CNN.
But “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert has a theory on the network’s decline that has nothing to do with any of that. He believes the biggest stories in the news these days are so hard on supporters of President Donald Trump that they’d rather tune out.
“I think, more than [MSNBC] rising, Fox is going down because the people who voted for him don’t want to hear it,” Colbert told an audience at New York’s Vulture Festival on Saturday, where he discussed political TV with “Veep” executive producer Frank Rich.
“But they’re not going to hear it on Fox,” Rich said, pointing out how the network underemphasizes the importance of stories on Congress’ Russia probes and others that make Trump look bad, so supporters wouldn’t come into contact with such headlines there, anyway. As of press time, Fox News continues to hold the lead in overall primetime viewers for the month of May.
“They’ll hear a little bit,” Colbert countered. “I think it depresses Trump voters to hear that stuff, so they’d rather just not hear it, because they can’t have been wrong.”
“So what do you think they’re watching instead?” Rich asked.
“The Late Show,” Colbert joked. “All are welcome.”
Of course, the late-night show recently came under fire for the strength of its host’s condemnation for Trump, which involved an insult that prompted an FCC investigation. Colbert’s show has benefited in the late-night ratings war from his willingness to dive into the political issues of the day ― a task that has his staff scrambling at the last minute these days as investigative reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets breaks at the end of the workday.
Colbert’s show is filmed from about 5:30 p.m. ET, kicking off with the host’s news-saturated monologue. But, as he pointed out, the jokes only work if the audience is aware of the biggest headlines. (The writers’ room features a screen partially devoted to Trump’s Twitter feed, just to make sure the staff doesn’t miss anything.) More than once in the past two weeks, Colbert said, he had to personally inform the audience of major breaking news so they’d get the laughs.
“Comey got fired in the middle of my monologue!” the host said, recalling the May 9 bombshell news that the president had abruptly terminated the FBI director leading an investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia. In that case, the show’s writers were given 10 minutes to come up with at least three jokes about the news while Colbert looped in the audience.
“That feels sustainable on our end,” the host said of the rapid-fire news cycle as damning leaks out of the White House have accelerated in recent weeks. “It doesn’t feel sustainable as a society.”
To Colbert, the state of American politics is more akin to political comedy, featuring a White House inundated by “ego,” “incompetence” and “panic.”
“That’s the scariest thing,” he said, making a fitting comparison given his onstage companion. “It’s not that I disagree with him. It’s that I don’t know what the fuck he thinks. And it’s all so petty and venal, and there’s nothing grand about it. It’s not Shakespearean ― no, it’s ‘Veep.’”
Ratings information in this piece was updated to more precisely reflect viewership rankings.