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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

March 4, 2013

Viewer Exodus Continues at Fox News

Fox News Channel continues to lose viewers in droves as it searches for the right mix of talent and programming to turn around the historic slide.

While the latest viewership numbers have the conservative news channel remaining far ahead of its competition, that is likely to change if it does not come to terms with the reason for dwindling monthly viewers.

For the record, Fox News has logged its worse ratings since 2001 and its margins as the most watched cable news network is in free fall. Other viewership numbers show things could get worse if a course correction isn’t made soon.

There are political repercussions associated with the Fox viewer slide as well. People are less engaged now, and the worry for Fox (and maybe Republicans) is that they stay away. We've seen Sean Hannity try to parlay interest in his show from a recent on-air controversy into improved and sustained ratings, but that won't work long term.

The job of fixing things remains the responsibility of Fox News President Roger Ailes; the anointed political and media guru of the cable news industry. He has already announced a few moves, but those are unlikely to make a substantial difference.

The changes thus far include not extending the contract of political analyst Dick Morris, ostensibly because he incorrectly predicted the outcome of the presidential election; and the release of former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin from her contract as a network spokesperson. New hires announced by Fox include former pizza executive Herman Cain and Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who will both serve as political analysts.

Whether Ailes’ will make meaningful adjustments remains an open question. Successful change starts with understanding the true nature of the problem, and it’s unclear whether he and Fox management does.

There is no doubt that managing cable and network news programming is tricky and not easily traversed even by even the most skilled and experienced player. As competent as Ailes is, he’s not infallible.

Ailes does have a stellar track record at Fox, and one would think that he is more than capable of turning the audience slide around. Yet, it seems that he and the Fox executive team may not recognize the reason behind the exodus of viewers.

As a long time viewer and admirer of Fox News, the audience decline in my view can be traced to one 60-second moment the day after the 2012 presidential election. It occurred on the Fox News morning show featuring Martha MacCallum.

Although the presidential election results had yet to be fully tabulated, anticipating a Republican defeat, MacCallum was busy on-air priming viewers for the next round of Washington controversy in the form of the dreaded fiscal cliff.

Like a carnival barker, luring the public into a side show, rather than a journalist, MacCallum was setting viewers up for the next set of Washington controversy Fox intended to hype. She was merely adhering to a script fed to her in a pre-dawn staff meeting where producers were anxiously looking ahead for content and controversy.

The message Fox sent that morning was clear: the elections are over, and we plan to feed the viewers a new set of political dribble, and it will be fed throughout this programming day and going forward for the next several weeks.

To the average viewer, it appeared Fox was setting its audience up with whatever news it wanted to peddle for the sole purpose of controversy, ratings, and advertising.

This jump from election crisis to fiscal cliff crisis, within hours of a United States presidential election, was too much for viewers to take. Fox viewers responded by ridding themselves of a constant antagonist in the form of Fox News. These are Republicans, conservatives, and independents that have had enough of nonstop cable hype and babble.

If Ailes and senior management believes viewers have left Fox because Barrack Obama was re-elected President, then they are seriously misreading the situation. In greater numbers viewers see Fox and cable news as nothing more than hyped entertainment, and a less than desirable place to learn what’s going on in the world.

Fox has been dominant in cable news television for many years and it’s been a good ride. But it needs to understand that a viewer attitude shift is taking place, and it’s only just begun.

The network must do more than change personalities and programming to bring back viewers. It needs to find a way to report the news and inspire its audience, all at the same time.

The fix will be difficult especially with the skeptical viewer that now permeates the cable news business, and whether Ailes and others are up to the task remains to be seen.