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Can the 2024 election save cable news?

May 28, 2023

Written By:

Aidan McLaughlin

No doubt Rupert Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief when Florida governor Ron DeSantis's decision to launch his presidential campaign on Twitter proved disastrous.

The announcement, hosted by Elon Musk, was derailed by technical glitches, leading to twenty minutes of awkward silences interrupted by occasional hot-mic moments of frustration. Even after Musk and his team at Twitter got things going, the highly anticipated event drew a meager audience of just 300,000 live listeners. The second stop of the DeSantis campaign, immediately afterward, was at Fox News, for an interview watched by an average of 2 million…

No doubt Rupert Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief when Florida governor Ron DeSantis's decision to launch his presidential campaign on Twitter proved disastrous.

The announcement, hosted by Elon Musk, was derailed by technical glitches, leading to twenty minutes of awkward silences interrupted by occasional hot-mic moments of frustration. Even after Musk and his team at Twitter got things going, the highly anticipated event drew a meager audience of just 300,000 live listeners. The second stop of the DeSantis campaign, immediately afterward, was at Fox News, for an interview watched by an average of 2 million viewers. It was a slick broadcast that went off without a hitch — and Fox gleefully reported on the failure of Musk, who earlier that day some analysts had crowned the new Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch's victory could be short-lived. While Musk has embarked on a quixotic campaign to restyle Twitter as a media business fit to challenge the news industry, cable news is facing a crisis like never before. A plunge in cable subscribers fueled by a pivot to streaming means cable-news giants, for a long time extremely profitable, are hurtling toward a cliff. As they approach the edge, new platforms — not just Twitter — are looking to give them the final shove.

News executives hope that the upcoming election, the biggest recurring programming boon in American news, will rescue an industry adrift. As one former Fox News veteran put it: "If 2024 doesn't save cable, nothing will."

It's happened before. In 2015, cable news was in the doldrums. Then, with one ride down a golden escalator, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News were catapulted onto the main stage of America politics, becoming major characters in the Trump show that would go from Iowa to the White House and the world. The new president's obsession with cable news kept its big three networks in the limelight. Profits soared. Journalists became stars.

All the while, an explosion of online media outlets has given Americans more providers than ever from which to consume news. An industry that was once controlled by a handful of national newspapers and broadcast networks is now the Wild West, populated by countless online personalities boasting millions of the young subscribers TV executives lust after. Leonardo DiCaprio may still watch cable news; his girlfriends watch YouTube.

The Biden administration has sought to meet younger viewers where they are, courting TikTok influencers by offering them access to the White House. Axios reported earlier this year that this brave new administration is considering giving influencers their own briefing room. Trump has embraced his own blitzkrieg iteration of the same strategy: the former president continues to post incessantly on his social media platform Truth Social and shows up haphazardly on YouTube shows like Full Send, a fratty podcast hosted by a group of twenty-somethings known as the Nelk Boys.

And yet the new landscape hasn't wiped out cable news. Its enduring power is down to the watertight economics of the industry: cable providers pay hefty license fees to the major networks, while advertising makes up a smaller piece of the revenue pie. That means a subscriber who bought a cable box to watch the NFL is subsidizing CNN — and it's why CNN, despite its ratings woes, still pulls in roughly $1 billion in annual profits. But the flight of cable subscribers means those profits will gradually shrink, while upheavals at the major cable networks have already threatened their dominance over American politics and culture. The two networks that a few decades ago changed the way the world consumes news — Fox and CNN — are each facing oncoming storms thanks to internal crises that have accelerated their ratings declines.

In April, Fox News was whacked with a devastating $787.5 million settlement in the defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, the result of the network promoting Trump's stolen-election fantasy to quell a viewer revolt over its coverage of the 2020 election. As part of the discovery process, a trove of embarrassing disclosures spilled into public view.

Yet even the hefty settlement has done little to stanch the bleeding. Two shareholder lawsuits followed, and Fox ousted its most popular star, the celebrated and reviled Tucker Carlson. His defenestration sparked yet another viewer revolt that has revived the fortunes of Newsmax, a Trumpier competitor.

The fury of the audience over these changes has led to a major ratings slump at Fox: it lost a million primetime viewers in the month after Carlson was ousted. The 8 p.m. hour he hosted for seven years lost nearly two million viewers. While Fox News remains the most watched network in cable news, far ahead of Newsmax, there are fears inside the network that audience anger is more intense than ever before. "Viewers are livid at Fox," one insider told me. "They are so pissed."

Newsmax has long embraced a two-pronged strategy when it comes to its bigger rival: kick Fox when it's down while courting Trump and his supporters by offering a more full-throated endorsement of his politics. The network's 8 p.m. star, former Fox News host Eric Bolling, saw his ratings surge after the Carlson ouster. On some nights, he has outperformed CNN's Anderson Cooper.

It's not just Newsmax that Fox has to worry about. Even before DeSantis chose to launch his campaign on Twitter, Musk had lured major conservative names to the social network, including Carlson and the Daily Wire, a thriving media company that often outflanks Fox on the right. Those coups, propelled by the woes plaguing the cable news industry at large, have threatened to move the center of gravity in conservative media sharply away from Fox. Its predicament could get even worse if Carlson decides to go to war against his old network from his new perch at Twitter.

"Tucker wants to remain relevant and have his voice," one source close to Carlson said. "Is that a threat to Fox? Of course. Fox needs to be the place that conservatives go to to figure out how to think about the news of the day. The more voices that are outside of Fox, the more that hurts Fox."

In a transparent bid to cleave off viewers, top personalities at the Daily Wire have since accused Fox of betraying its audience. That conservative pundits feel free to attack it is already an ominous sign: "The attacks on Fox News from other major voices in conservative media is a sign of Fox's dwindling influence," one former Fox staffer told me.

Yet the companies vying to depose the cable news giants have yet to prove they have the muscle to handle the 2024 election. A top Trump adviser told me the DeSantis launch on Twitter was a "bizarre" decision given the format didn't lend itself to being promoted on cable: "Even if perfectly executed — which it clearly wasn't — the only thing the morning shows would have had to feature the next day is staticky audio and a goofy still photo, with zero short-video clips to feature on social media."

Despite the simmering rage over the ouster of Carlson and the resulting ratings plunge in primetime, Fox leadership maintains the network will bounce back when 2024 heats up. And indeed, Fox has weathered the departure of top personalities before, each time emerging stronger than ever (see: Glenn Beck, Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly). That's led to a feeling of invincibility among the top brass. "They are so fucking arrogant," one former Fox host told me. "They have a sense that they’re untouchable. Because they’ve weathered a million viewer losses before. Fear is not in their DNA."

Leadership may be confident in Fox's long-term prospects, but anxiety has become pervasive among the rank and file. "The mood is weird, tense, and they don't know how to communicate right now," one insider told me. "They’re nervous to email and text. They’re afraid to put anything in writing."

A fear of written communication is indeed pervasive. When I texted one source inside Fox to ask how things were going, I received a cheerful but calculated punt: "Let's get a drink soon!"

And Fox's troubles are far from over. It faces another lawsuit from the voting tech company Smartmatic, which it subjected to the same conspiracy theories that tortured Dominion. Smartmatic is demanding even more in damages. $1.1 billion more. The backdrop of this procession of embarrassments for Fox remains the health of Rupert Murdoch. The Australian-American media titan turned ninety-two in March; insiders begrudgingly admit he hasn't cracked the code of eternal life. One former network staffer put it this way: "For all this talk of what Fox does and where it goes, the elephant in the room is how much longer Murdoch has left to live."

CNN faces its own crisis. There's a new regime at the network, dead set on toning down the dramatic anti-Trump opinion that defined CNN for the last eight years. Yet while the Trump show brought with it soaring ratings, the quiet new CNN has seen its numbers plummet to dangerous lows, and newsroom confidence in CEO Chris Licht is even lower. "I’ve never seen it this demoralized," one CNN anchor told me. "People are furious at what's happening right now." (In the days since this story went to press, Licht has resigned.)

Licht has tinkered with CNN's lineup, which had to be rebuilt after scandals involving former CEO Jeff Zucker and top-rated host Chris Cuomo. But Licht's big swings have so far been misses. The highly anticipated morning show, which cobbled together three of CNN's biggest stars, was a failure: it never drew a serious audience, and within the first seven months, Licht fired Don Lemon and moved Kaitlan Collins into primetime. CNN This Morning is now just Poppy Harlow This Morning — as the ratings fall ever lower.

Then came the May town hall with Trump. The event was presented by CNN leadership as an obvious move for a news network seeking to cover the upcoming election objectively. Collins, a rising star who proved herself as a tough White House reporter during the Trump administration, was tapped to handle the imperious former president. But the execution of the event — Collins facing off against Trump in a room full of Trump supporters, whose rowdy cheers drowned out her attempts to factcheck him — sparked outrage inside and outside the network.

What's more, the town hall didn't deliver the same ratings high of the Trump presidency. Three million people tuned in — a big audience for CNN, but smaller than its last town hall with President Joe Biden. The soft ratings only fueled internal complaints that the event was a poorly conceived and poorly executed debacle, one that even CNN icon Christiane Amanpour publicly criticized in her commencement speech at the Columbia Journalism School.

"People were happy that Christiane stood up," the CNN anchor said. "The question is: do we get back to those numbers or have we so alienated the audience that we’re in the territory of permanent damage you can't recover from?"

The clash between CNN leadership and the newsroom has put the network in an almost impossible position. The network certainly can't ignore Trump, who remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party, and very likely its next nominee for president. Then again, frustrated CNN journos insist that they can't treat him like any other candidate. This is, after all, a president whose first term ended in a deadly riot by his supporters at the Capitol. Earlier in his presidency, one of Trump's supporters got so hopped up on his CNN-bashing he sent pipe bombs to its New York headquarters. "He's a danger to the country and a danger to democracy," one CNN source said. "And there's a lot of people who think he should be covered like that."

As CNN struggles with these big questions about how to cover Trump, leadership has sought to tamp down concerns about the ratings plunge. Licht and his boss David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, see CNN as a reputational asset for its parent company. They want to restore the credibility of the network, leaving behind the business model embraced by Zucker, which drew big ratings and big profits but also criticism for partisan theatrics. The anchor I spoke with was skeptical of that strategy: "By now, shouldn't this experiment that they’ve embarked on have paid some kind of dividends? They’ve been thinking, if we dial back the coverage in certain ways, maybe we’ll get some of Fox's viewers. It didn't happen."

The dark undercurrent to these missteps is belt-tightening throughout CNN that has resulted in layoffs and cost-cutting across the board, angering staff who point to the irony of the large pay packages enjoyed by executives like Zaslav. "There's a lot of questions about what Zaslav is up to," a CNN anchor said. "He's at the Cannes Film Festival partying with Graydon Carter while they’re laying people off and telling us we have no money. How is that sending a positive message to the rank and file?"

The problem for Licht's vision is that while viewers may say they want nonpartisan news, they don't watch it very much. As the quiet new CNN sinks in the ratings, MSNBC, which blends news shows and progressive opinion programming, is faring surprisingly well. Liberal darling Rachel Maddow now hosts her MSNBC show just once a week, but she's the top-rated host on cable news every time she is on air. Meanwhile, the network has cultivated other stars, like Nicolle Wallace and Ari Melber. MSNBC is no doubt confident that once the 2024 race heats up, progressives fearful of a Trump return to the White House — or even a DeSantis victory — will tune in to have their fears echoed by Maddow and the network's stable of progressive opinion hosts and political analysts.

Amid the doom and gloom expressed by veterans of cable news, the industry remains incredibly powerful. Online media junkies and their dealers — the YouTubers and TikTokkers of the world — have long scoffed at audience numbers drawn by cable news. Yet those ratings belie the monumental influence of the industry. The real data is in the cumulative viewership. For CNN, that was some 68 million viewers in the first quarter of the year — some 20 percent of America.

Even that fails to show the true power of cable news, which is that CNN, MSNBC and Fox have been the center of gravity of American politics for decades. "On a night like Super Tuesday or the Iowa caucuses, people will be turning on their TVs," one cable news insider said. Everyone from lowly political operatives to presidents of the United States watch obsessively on such occasions, using cable news to drive their messaging and sometimes taking their cues from hosts. When DeSantis appeared on Newsmax following his rocky Twitter launch, he told host Eric Bolling, "I’m actually not a big social media guy. I would rather watch you than be on some app." For once, Trump no doubt agreed with his 2024 opponent.

Cable news may be facing a crisis, fueled by the gradual decline of viewership and high-profile scandals rocking its major networks. But don't count it out in 2024. "TV might not have the same dominance it once did, but it's still the biggest animal in the jungle," a top Trump adviser told me. Cable news might be down for now, but the next election is likely to be decided in its studios.

This article is taken from The Spectator's July 2023 World edition.


Aidan McLaughlin

Aidan McLaughlin is the editor-in-chief of Mediaite.