What with turmoil in the Middle East and a still-active furor over the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, summer 2014 was a boom time for cable news. Producers had no trouble filling airtime.
The big stories, however, appear to have been much, much kinder to Fox News than to its competitors. Not only did the network outpace rivals CNN and MSNBC — nothing new there — but also it used the big events to best the alphabet soup of powerhouse cable networks, something it hasn’t done in a decade. In weekday prime time (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) for the third quarter, Fox News edged out USA, ESPN, TNT and a host of also-rans. MSNBC clocked in a 23rd and CNN, 27th.
Fox News also beat the entire cable field in so-called “extended prime time” (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.), something that the network hadn’t done before in its nearly 18-year history. More domination data: These shows beat all cable comers in their timeslots in the third quarter: “Fox & Friends,” “America’s Newsroom,” “The Five,” “Special Report with Bret Baier,” “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” and “The O’Reilly Factor.”
What to make of all these Fox News blowouts? Well, first off, don’t always confuse big audiences with quality. “Fox & Friends,” for instance, outranked all cable competitors in clownishness and viewership. This Fox News morning show, which committed its famous Ray Rice “take the stairs” outrage in the third quarter, provides the basis for this blog’s “Fox News Plug-in Theory” — namely, that Fox News has such a hold on an eager television-watching demographic that the network can plug in any program at any time slot and prevail in the ratings. The programming formulas, the topic choices, the production values — all the ultimate purview of TV genius and Fox News chief Roger Ailes — mean that any Fox News program has to do something extraordinary to lag in the ratings.
That said, the network’s prime-time dominance is a textbook case of TV news management. A year ago, Megyn Kelly slid into the prime-time lineup at the 9 p.m. slot, bumping Sean Hannity to 10 p.m. and Greta Van Susteren to 7 p.m. It was the first prime-time lineup change in a decade, and it has rocked. Kelly shares with her co-prime-timers a strong personality as well as a penchant for digging into the very topics that animate Fox Nation. She has also scored a number of high-profile interviews with newsmakers from Dick Cheney to Bill Ayers, to considerable critical acclaim.
In a New York Magazine essay early this year, Frank Rich argued that the Fox News audience resembled a “retirement community” whose relevance stemmed from liberal bursts of outrage over the network’s latest pronouncement. Perhaps, but in the third quarter the network claimed the top 10 programs in the critical 25- to 54-year-old demographic — the first time that’s happened since the fourth quarter of 2011, according to Fox News.