The Nielsen Company (producer of the famous Nielsen ratings) provides its clients with audience measurements by the quarter hour, the half hour, the hour, household income, sex, age, and so on. However the clients want it sliced and diced, Nielsen has it covered.
If you’re a cable news executive, the one thing you do not want to see, other than a low-rated hour, is a quarter-hour decline in audience. The theory being that if someone leaves, he or she won’t be back for the remainder of the show. And he or she might not be back for the rest of the day.
If you’re an executive working at Fox News or MSNBC, you know the one thing that will cause your quarter hour audience number to dip, often immediately, is criticism of President Trump (Fox News) or support for him and/or his policies (MSNBC). Sometimes even mild criticism can cause as much as 6%-to-8% of the audience to hit the clickers.
If you’re an executive producer of a Fox News or MSNBC non-prime “hour,” you know the one thing that will bring corner office executives down on your head is quarter hour dips. So you make sure it doesn’t happen. And the easiest way to make sure it doesn’t happen is by not booking guests who cut against the grain of the audience’s political beliefs.
There’s a reason the Fox News and MSNBC programming line-ups, especially in prime time, are as “ideologically” monochromatic as they are. They are that way because that’s the way the Fox News and MSNBC audiences want them. The audiences program the networks, not the other way around.
As it happens, roughly a third of the Fox News audience thinks Fox News is (or can be) too moderate. Some even think it’s too “liberal.” If a third or half of that audience cohort goes elsewhere for right-wing/populist news, Fox News Channel loses audience share and misses its revenue forecasts.
CEO Lachlan Murdoch’s plan for the larger enterprise, now called Fox Corporation, depends upon FNC not missing its forecasts, because the other operating companies (the Fox Broadcast Network, Fox Business Network, Fox’s “owned and operated affiliates” and Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2) generate legacy business-type earnings and recent acquisitions/investments in digital gaming and e-gambling need more time to bear fruit.
Fox News Channel delivers huge earnings; more than $2 billion annually, which gives the parent company a growth narrative popular with Wall Street analysts. The margins are astonishing (60+%, according to published reports). It’s the boat that tows all the other boats along.
As you might imagine, the extraordinary success of Fox News Channel has not gone unnoticed in the media-deal-starved corridors of private equity. For the last five-to-seven years (or so) there has been much chatter at the intersection of right-wing/populist politics and private equity/family office capital about starting a cable news channel to compete for that part of the Fox News audience that feels “underserved” by Fox News programming.
Prior to the general election in 2016, anticipating defeat, then-candidate Donald Trump talked about creating the Trump Network and taking his “base” (and maybe Roger Ailes) with him. Surprise! Mr. Trump won the election. The Trump Network project was shelved. The nascent Trump Administration was born.
Next up was Sinclair Broadcasting, which in 2017 was the high bidder for Tribune Media Company’s local television stations. Had that deal received regulatory approval, Sinclair would have had distribution into 72% of America’s TV households, more than critical mass for a new “conservative news network,” albeit one that would not be “all news and opinion, all the time.” Alas, no regulatory blessing was forthcoming (curiously enough), and the deal collapsed in a heap of litigation and accusations of bad faith.
Interest in challenging Fox News, however, did not flag. In January of this year, The Wall Street Journal reported:
Allies of President Trump are pursuing an effort to acquire right-leaning news channel One America News Network, according to people familiar with the matter, in a bid to shake up a conservative media market that has been dominated by Fox News.
The investment firm Hicks Equity Partners is looking to acquire the channel and is pitching other wealthy GOP donors to arrange a bid of roughly $250 million for the channel’s parent company, the people said. The firm is owned by the family of Thomas Hicks Jr., co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and a close friend of Donald Trump Jr.
One America News Network is sort of the Flat Earth Society of cable news and mind-numbingly boring to boot. No one thinks it poses any threat to Fox News Channel, but the supposed takeover “effort” did speak to the staying power of the idea that Fox News remains vulnerable on its right flank.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, in a buried scoop, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reported this:
(T)he new NBCUniversal chief executive, Jeff Shell, has suggested in private conversation that he wants to make a more dramatic change at the company’s other cable news network, CNBC, two NBCUniversal executives said. Mr. Shell, the two executives said, is considering turning the network’s prime-time hours, currently occupied by “Shark Tank” reruns and business-focused reality programming like “The Profit,” over to right-wing talk shows. A similar plan was floated years ago — a development executive even met with the talk-radio flamethrower Mark Levin, a CNBC executive said. But it could allow Comcast to extend an olive branch to Mr. Trump and his avid supporters.
That got everyone’s attention. The idea of attacking Fox News from the right has always been thought of as an insurgent story — Steve Bannon’s barbarians at the gate. The idea of NBC Universal attacking Fox News from the right was an entirely different story, since CNBC had the household distribution needed to be competitive and NBC Universal had the financial wherewithal to underwrite a relentless assault. It would be corporate war and put Fox News Channel in a position it has never been in before: on defense.
That was a narrative the mainstream media would love. You can imagine the coverage; excitable “media reporters” breathlessly describing the cable news “cage match smackdown.” No doubt the narrative would favor NBC Universal. Reporters have been waiting for a very long time for Fox News to get its comeuppance.
The mainstreamers wouldn’t be the only ones loving it. President Trump would love it, since it would give him a credible cable news challenger to work with (granting interviews, making Administration figures available, leaking stories, etc.), while putting extra pressure on Fox News Channel to toe his administration’s line. From Trump’s point of view, dominating two primetime line-ups would be far better than dominating one.
On top of all that, it would be a huge political win for NBC Universal, covering off both ends of a highly polarized Washington; MSNBC for Team Blue and CNBC prime time for Team Red. Politicians don’t attack their media home teams.
Looming over all these machinations and calculations are two events. The first, obviously, is the presidential election. If Trump wins, it’s likely that a NBC Universal push into primetime right-wing chat shows (via CNBC) would make it impossible for another challenger to Fox News Channel to arise. There’s only room for two loud voices in the room, so to speak.
If Trump loses, however, then it’s entirely possible he will dust off the old Trump TV plan, have the major private equity firms come by to pitch financing schemes, feel out some potential prime time talent (show hosts) and then look at his options.
One option might be to buy Fox News Channel. Another might be to buy One America News Network (OANN) and try to compete with Fox News Channel. A third might be to attempt a carve-out takeover of CNN; AT&T would get some much needed cash, Trump would have his revenge, the new Trump Network would have its household distribution and the PE lads would get their fees and be on TV as well. (Never underestimate the power being on TV).
It seems certain, to me at least, that Trump will want to “own” or front a cable “news” channel one minute after he loses his re-election bid (assuming he loses, obviously). One of the most disorienting things about being an ex-president is that you go from being the most interesting (and powerful) person in the world to being a has-been in one second. At the end of the oath of office for your successor, you all-but-evaporate.
Trump, for whom narcissism is almost a middle name, has become addicted to being the center of attention. He’s a junkie. And his drug of choice is television (Twitter is about making sure television stays focused on him). Not being on television would be, for him, like not being alive.
The second thing that hangs over all of this is, of course, Rupert Murdoch’s “retirement,” otherwise known as “many years later, he died at his desk.” Mr. Murdoch will be 90 years old next March. He’s sold the entertainment assets of the once mighty 21st Century Fox to Disney for an astronomical price. He’s turned the management of the newly-configured Fox Corporation over to his son. He’s as powerful as he has ever been in his life. And Fox News, at least perceptually, is the most important news media organization in the world. In the event of a Trump re-election win, it would maintain that status. It’s hard to imagine how Rupert Murdoch could be riding higher.
For someone as shrewd as Rupert Murdoch, riding that high means it’s time to sell. The question is whether he’ll be able to bring himself to do so.
One suspects that Lachlan Murdoch would offer up no objection to a sale. One suspects he (secretly, or perhaps not-so-secretly) favors the idea. It would give him enormous financial resources to “reimagine” and build out a “New Fox.” It would rid him of the Fox News “taint,” which is social (your wife fielding hate stares at haute Hollywood dinner parties), perceptual (never-ending bad press) and commercial (talented Hollywood liberals scorning Fox projects). And it would rid him of the widely-held belief that his success is derivative. A Fox Corporation rid of Fox News would truly be a Lachlan Murdoch company, not a Rupert Murdoch company.
As President Tump would say, “we’ll see what happens.” If Trump loses the election, Trump TV (in whatever form it eventually takes) will be a bigger story than the nascent Biden Administration. Private equity firms will want in on the action. Press coverage will be massive and fully tabloid, with Trump the center of attention. The New York Post will be must reading. And Fox News will be “in play,” even if it’s not for sale.
Events will be in the saddle. The one person who has already thought all this through (backwards and forwards), I would guess, is Rupert Murdoch. What he fully understands is that “the top of the market” for Fox News has arrived. And what he also understands is that if you miss it, you tend to miss it by a lot.
Editor’s Note #1: I worked for Rupert Murdoch for roughly 3 years and am fond of him, personally. I do not know Lachlan Murdoch. I am not privy to any inside corporate information or deliberations. Perhaps inevitably, the above will be interpreted as some kind of “trial balloon” or coded message to “insiders.” It isn’t. It’s what I think is going on in “the conservative media space.” Full stop.