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New level of Fox News dominance demands analysis, not dismissal

Face it: Fox rules the TV news landscape.

Any day now, I am expecting to turn on the tube and see an ad that says, “More Americans get their TV news from Fox than anywhere else.”

Whether that pleases or horrifies you, it’s time to think seriously about what that says about Fox, CNN, MSNBC, the state of network news today and the role TV plays or doesn’t play in providing us with reliable, trustworthy information.

Much of the media establishment seems bent on ignoring the incredible ratings success of Fox News. Or, maybe it’s just that Fox has pounded CNN and MSNBC in the ratings for so long that another victory doesn’t seem like “news” – especially with MSNBC imploding and CNN committing to any genre but news in an effort to find new audiences.

But there are three ratings stories the last two weeks that taken together show Fox News rising to a new and remarkable level of dominance - and they have been underreported in the mainstream media.

First, Fox News beat not just CNN and MSNBC, but also ABC, NBC and CBS on Nov. 4, the night of the mid-term elections.  It did so in both total viewers and the key news demographic: viewers 25 to 54 years of age.

Fox more than tripled the audiences of MSNBC and CNN in total viewers, while beating ABC, NBC and CBS by more than 3 million, 2 million and 1 million viewers respectively. (See figures at end of post.)

On a watershed political night, more Americans tuned to Fox for information about the vote than anywhere else.

I have been covering media long enough to remember when CBS, NBC or ABC was the big story on election night in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And, as a critic, as late as 2008, I was thinking no channel mattered more than CNN. This year, for all the reporters it had on the ground election night, CNN barely did better than the we-lost-our-credibility-in-our-slavish-devotion-to-Obama MSNBC. That’s pathetic.

Second, buoyed by its election-night juggernaut,  Fox was the highest-rated cable channel of the week of Nov. 3, beating such ratings engines as Nickelodeon and ESPN.  That’s not the highest-rated cable news channel, the universe it used to live in. That’s highest-rated period – beating all the entertainment channels like AMC and TNT.

And finally, last week, Fox News aired a documentary, “The Man Who Killed Usama Bin Laden,” and it drew more than 3 million viewers. Part Two, which drew 3.37 million viewers, was the highest-rated documentary in Fox News history.

For some perspective, consider how crazy CNN went when it drew 1.36 million viewers for the premiere of “Blackfish,” a documentary about a captive killer whale, in 2013. President Jeff Zucker committed to a full slate of documentaries and hailed it as the next big thing for CNN.

For Fox, it’s just another night at the office running up record ratings.

Step One in assessing this sea change is for the media establishment to admit the dominance of Fox News today. Ignoring its success doesn’t make it any less real.

And then, we need to start seriously trying to figure out how and why it has come to pass that Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly matter more to Americans on election night than Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, George Stephanopoulos, Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer – way more than the latter two.

I think one of the reasons for this latest evolution of ratings dominance might be that Fox was a far better watchdog on the Obama White House than any other TV news organization. It took the heat and the blowback from an administration that showed an enmity for the press not seen on Pennsylvania Avenue since the dark days of Richard Nixon, but it stayed the course. And now with viewers seeing the contempt this administration had for them and the truth, they respect what Fox did the last six years.

Or maybe, it’s what some critics of Fox say: That those who watch the channel only want to hear one side of the story, and that’s all that Fox gives them. The implication here is that Fox viewers are stupid, to borrow an offensive term that Jonathan Gruber, the administration's $400,000 adviser on Obamacare, used to describe American voters.

You tell me.

The answers matter. And we shouldn’t let our biases blind us to the serious media criticism that demands to be done.

Ratings at 10 p.m. Election Night for Cable and Networks:

Fox News: 6.6 million overall (1.8 million 25 to 54)

CBS: 5.4 million (1.5 million)

NBC: 4.2 million (1.5 million)

ABC: 3.1 million (1.1 million)

CNN: 1.9 million (912,000)

MSNBC: 1.6 million (566,000)

 

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