Fox News is the geezer channel
Reed Richardson SAYS Fox news has a demographic problem:
Fox News’s fundamentals—audience, ratings and public trust—have faltered. A 2010 study by Steve Sternberg found the network’s viewership to be the oldest (with an average age of 65) among an already elderly cable news audience. (CNN’s was 63 and MSNBC’s was 59.) By comparison, lifestyle cable channels Oxygen, Bravo and TLC were among the youngest, with an average viewer age of 42. And with MSNBC’s recent decision to plug 34-year-old rising star Chris Hayes into the coveted 8 pm slot, the average age of that network’s prime-time hosts will now be 45, while Fox News’s rotation, anchored by 63-year-old Bill O’Reilly, has an average age of 57.
Having cable news’s oldest average age for both prime-time hosts and audiences represents something of a double-edged sword for Fox in the cutthroat world of cable TV. One advantage is that older audiences are traditionally more loyal, which is why several industry experts say that Fox News is unlikely to be dislodged from its perch atop overall cable TV news ratings anytime soon. This age-loyalty effect redounds to the benefit of Fox News’s best-known prime-time hosts, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, as roughly two-thirds of their viewers are age 50 or older, according to a recent Pew State of the News Media survey.
But at the same time, there is an undeniable actuarial reality at work—or as [former Reagan aide Bruce] Bartlett bluntly puts it, “Their viewership is quite literally dying.” The most lucrative advertising dollars flow to TV shows that attract viewers “in the demo,” short for “demographic”—industry parlance for people ages 25 to 54. By contrast, Fox News’s prime-time commercial breaks are blanketed with pitches for cheap medical devices and insurance companies aimed at retirees and the elderly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the network’s advertising rates have grown at a much more modest pace in recent years, according to the Pew survey. Similarly, the growth of its ad revenues has diminished every year since 2008.
Because of the relatively older age and smaller size of the cable news audience, viewership tends to be relatively stable, says Columbia University Journalism School professor and former NBC News president Richard Wald. “Its [ratings] move in very small increments.” To understand why viewers come and go, he compares a TV network’s audience to a target with concentric rings. The core audience—those who are loyal to your channel and watch frequently (and, for partisan media outlets, those who are most ideologically compatible)—is the bull’s-eye. Each concentric ring outward represents a segment of the audience that is less likely to watch because of diminished interest or less enthusiastic partisan sympathies. Dramatic ratings shifts can occur, but they tend to be driven by external events, like elections, rather than programming and thus affect all of the networks simultaneously. Most ratings fluctuations are statistical noise, Wald says, resulting from people in the outermost rings tuning in or out based on varying interest. “I would guess that [Fox News’s] numbers could change by 5, 6, 7, 8 percent and not reflect a change in the loyalty of the audience.”
But here, too, the news does not bode well. Though the network did retain its status as the top-rated cable news network in 2012—its eleventh consecutive year at number one—the steep drop in ratings that its shows have experienced since Election Day has raised eyebrows, precisely because corresponding shows on MSNBC and CNN have not experienced the same precipitous decline.
Just how much of a drop are we talking about? According to Nielsen data, Fox News’s prime-time monthly audience fell to its lowest level in twelve years in January among the 25-to-54 demographic. Daytime Fox News programming likewise saw its lowest monthly ratings in this age cohort since June 2008. Even the network’s two biggest stars, O’Reilly and Hannity, have not been immune from viewer desertion: Hannity lost close to 50 percent of his pre-election audience in the final weeks of 2012, and O’Reilly more than a quarter. The slide hasn’t stopped in 2013, either. Compared with a year ago, O’Reilly’s February prime-time ratings dropped 26 percent in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic, his worst performance since July 2008. Hannity’s sank even further, to the lowest point in his show’s history.