Fox News' Place In An Obama World

Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," talks to Harry Smith. CBS

This is the first installment in a three-part series by MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman examining the prospects for the three major cable-news operations entering a Barack Obama presidency.

In the aftermath of Sen. Barack Obama's stirring victory over John McCain, I've been hearing speculation about another potentially eye-opening event: the end of Fox News Channel's reign as the king of cable news.

The logic goes that because a left-leaning Obama is now in power, Fox will be in decline. Some people say that the voters who swept the Illinois senator into office will reflect his liberal views and turn away from Fox. I'd suggest three words of caution:

Not so fast.

News Corp. unit Fox is No. 1 today in the cable ratings, and has been for nearly seven years. (News Corp. also owns MarketWatch, the publisher of this column.) There are three main reasons to suspect that it can stay there:

Fox can take comfort in knowing that its core audience of politically conservative Americans is loyal to the point of being rabid. That won't change one bit, even with a Democrat in the White House.

Under Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News since its inception, the unit has never been complacent, and it won't start coasting now.

Fox, which loves to portray itself as the underdog, can now rally the troops to a fever pitch by reverting to its favorite public posture: The Outsider.

Fox should have a relatively easy time of maintaining its core viewers, who trend to the right. Even as Obama raced past McCain during the campaign, Fox was able to maintain its position of dominance in the cable ratings.

As TVWeek recently noted, Fox marked its 12th anniversary in October with a major ratings victory that catapulted it to be the second-most watched basic cable network in prime-time for the month.

In recent weeks, Fox has fortified its ranks. It re-signed Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. It recruited Glenn Beck, who had been with CNN's Headline News division.

History on its side

Remember, the upstart Fox News Channel rose to prominence during Bill Clinton's presidency. Under the leadership of Ailes, Fox News brilliantly identified a large audience of millions of disenfranchised American voters, the underlying key to its ability to sprint past CNN when that Time Warner unit looked indestructible.

Fox News was launched in 1996, just as Clinton was about to embark on a second term in the White House. It was a time when Bob Dole was the public face of the Republican Party and even amid popularity of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, the G.O.P. seemed hopelessly mired in mediocrity after back-to-back resounding wins by Clinton.

People sometimes forget how much of an obstacle Fox had to over come in those days. CNN had established a huge, winning image during the first invasion of Iraq in 1991. In the ensuing years, CNN more or less lived off its reputation. CNN had no idea that Fox would prove to be so ambitious, and capable of blowing past it in the ratings.

Ailes' formula was brilliant in its execution: appeal to voters who felt voiceless and were turned off by Bill and Hillary Clinton's policies and values.

Viewer retention

But today, Fox's path may not be as smooth. On Election Night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., according to Nielsen Media Research, CNN topped Fox, 12.3 million viewers to 9 million.

Fox, which takes pride in having a consistently high retention rate of viewers, was still able to turn in its second-highest prime time result in total viewers and its highest 25-to-54 demographic ever.

Then again, it may be a mistake to draw long-standing conclusions from the results of one night. Remember, copies of newspapers flew off the shelves immediately following the historic Obama victory, but that didn't change anything about the doleful state of the newspaper industry.

Yes, it will be a challenge to continue to stay on top. Fox has done it before.
By Jon Friedman
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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