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Fox’s Tucker Carlson firing is boosting Newsmax’s ratings. Will it last?

One month later, Fox’s ratings are still down. But the small, conservative cable channel also attracted disgruntled Fox viewers after the 2020 election — and didn’t keep them long.

A security guard stands outside the News Corporation building in New York last month. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
5 min

In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Newsmax looked to be breaking out. The small conservative cable news channel saw its ratings surge after some partisan viewers soured on Fox News for accurately predicting that Joe Biden would win the pivotal state of Arizona. But Newsmax’s gains were fleeting, and Fox quickly lured its viewers back.

Now, Newsmax is gaining again — and once again, it has come at the expense of Fox. After Fox fired star host Tucker Carlson, Newsmax’s ratings surged. One month later, they remain unusually high.

While the biggest beneficiary has been Newsmax’s 8 p.m. host Eric Bolling, a former Fox News personality whose ratings have increased by 142 percent in the time slot once dominated by Carlson, the entire prime-time lineups for both channels are showing the effects of a viewer migration.

Fox still maintains a large advantage over Newsmax, with an average 1.6 million total viewers in prime time to Newsmax’s 383,000. But it’s lost more than half its usual 8 p.m. viewers through several weeks of temporary replacement hosts — including morning show host Brian Kilmeade and former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany — none of whom have come close to matching Carlson’s numbers.

In the four weeks before Carlson’s firing, Bolling’s Newsmax show averaged 202,000 total viewers. Since Carlson was ousted, Newsmax has averaged 489,000 viewers, according to Nielsen ratings data obtained by The Washington Post. Carlson’s show on Fox averaged 3.27 million in his last four weeks as a host. The hosts who have replaced him at 8 p.m. have averaged just 1.49 million.

Even Carlson’s fellow prime-time stars who have stayed with the network are suffering weaker ratings. In the past month, Fox’s overall prime-time ratings have declined by 39 percent — from an average of 2.6 million viewers to 1.6 million — while Newsmax’s prime-time ratings have increased by 135 percent.

Newsmax’s surge comes amid an overall scramble in cable news viewership that has also been marked by sharp declines for CNN. For three consecutive nights last week, Bolling pulled more viewers than the rival offering hosted by CNN’s veteran anchor Anderson Cooper, arguably the biggest star on the network. Before Carlson’s firing, Newsmax rarely came close to matching CNN at 8 p.m.

The looming existential crisis for cable news

Newsmax took deliberate steps to capitalize on Fox’s decision to fire Carlson. Within an hour of Fox announcing April 24 that it would “part ways” with the host, Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy issued a statement accusing Fox of “moving to become establishment media.”

“Millions of viewers who liked the old Fox News have made the switch to Newsmax and this will only fuel that trend,” Ruddy said.

In an interview Thursday, Ruddy said his prediction has come true. “People really voted with their remote controls against Fox and for Newsmax,” he told The Post. “They had now a reason to leave Fox to check us out, and they like us. They’re going to stick.”

Fox News has not publicly reacted to Newsmax’s recent rise. But when Newsmax surged in 2020, Fox News executives privately fretted over how to bolster their ratings, according to internal text messages and emails made public in a recent defamation lawsuit. The plaintiff in that case, Dominion Voting System, argued that Fox News’s panic about alienating conservative viewers prompted it to allow Trump-affiliated commentators to air bogus claims of election fraud. While Fox settled the Dominion lawsuit last month for $787.5 million, Newsmax is still facing a similar defamation claim from the same company.

Still, it didn’t take long for Newsmax’s viewership to recede — and for Fox to reassert its dominance. By the end of December 2020, Newsmax’s viewership had dropped from a mid-November peak of 398,000 down to 191,000.

This time, however, Ruddy thinks the viewers will stay. The upstart channel has hired additional correspondents and made other programming changes he thinks viewers will like, such as installing Bolling at 8 p.m. as “the anchor” of the prime-time lineup.

“We’re going to have a much more sticky programming lineup throughout the day and night and overnights for people,” Ruddy said. “We’re much better positioned. We’re a much more mature as a news organization.”

Chris Ruddy and Newsmax went all-in on Trump. Now they might pay a price for it.

Industry observers are open to some of his optimism, though they cautioned that overall viewership of cable news is inexorably declining regardless of any gains for a particular network.

“I think there is a better chance Newsmax ratings will be more sustainable this time around,” said industry analyst Brad Adgate, pointing to the difficulty of replacing Carlson.

“In the short term, some of the switch from Fox News to Newsmax will be sticky,” said Andrew Tyndall, an analyst who writes regularly about TV news. Viewership habits are hard to alter, but Carlson’s firing is the kind of “seismic” change that can make it happen, he said.

Still, he predicted Fox can win its audience back when it ultimately settles on a new 8 p.m. host. “Over time, the replacement is certain to develop a tone of voice and a persona that fits into the lineup flow, and Fox News is certain to regain a larger and larger share of the audience in that time slot,” Tyndall said.