Fox News Formula Works, Opines Prof. Jeff McCall

Originally posted: October 1, 2011

When Fox News Channel signed on in October 1996, few figured what a force it would become in just 15 years. When Fox News debuted, cable news was dominated by the firmly established CNN. MSNBC also was an upstart cable news channel then, but it had the resources of NBC behind it. The broadcast networks, with the big three of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, were still in their heyday. The odds were not in Fox’s favor.

Within five years, however, Fox had surpassed its cable rivals in ratings. Now 15 years after launch, Fox News has more viewers throughout its prime-time lineup than competitors CNN, HLN and MSNBC combined.

Fox is the news channel that many viewers like and others like to hate, but the channel has no doubt become a player in the broadcast news world. The White House Correspondents Association last year gave Fox a front-row seat in the White House briefing room. When President Obama granted a pregame Super Bowl interview to high-profile personality Bill O’Reilly, it was clear the White House had grudgingly acknowledged its interests were served by playing ball with Fox News. That came after months during which presidential spokesmen had derided Fox as “not a news organization” and “opinion journalism masquerading as news.” Even Obama had publicly tagged Fox as “ultimately destructive.”

Fox News cleverly branded itself at the outset as “fair and balanced,” rhetorically distinguishing itself from traditional media outlets that right-leaning Americans had distrusted for years. While critics complain that Fox is not really fair, the label and the approach have resonated with loyal viewers. Journalistic balance or not, Fox News has proven to be a financial success for its parent company, News Corp. Even during the worst of the economic slump in 2009, Fox News maintained double-digit revenue and profit growth.

Fox News has staffed its operation over the years with a strategic blend of recognizable broadcast veterans grabbed from other news shops and homegrown stars. An early coup was hiring former ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume to head the Washington bureau. Hume gave instant credibility to Fox’s news mission. Other high-profile journalists brought into the stable include Chris Wallace (from NBC and ABC), Wendell Goler (Associated Press), John Roberts (CBS and CNN), and now Ed Henry (CNN). Fox News-developed talents include Bret Baier, successful host of “Special Report;” Shepard Smith of “The Fox Report;” and legal correspondent Shannon Bream.

Fox has struggled, however, to clarify the difference between its news programs and its opinion-driven shows. Critics assail Fox as grossly partisan, pointing to the talk shows of conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity and the recently ousted Glenn Beck. This makes Fox an easy target for left-leaning politicians and liberal watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America that dispute Fox News’ fair-and-balanced slogan. Fox likes to explain that opinion programming is similar to the editorial section of the newspaper and doesn’t damage the credibility of the straight news shows. That argument has not convinced opponents who sense conservative perspectives throughout the Fox broadcast day.

In spite of criticism from the left, Fox News has forged ahead, secure in the support of viewers who like the approach, which can’t be confused with CNN or “CBS Evening News.” A Pew Research study last year found that Fox was one of only two national news outlets to gain in believability ratings during the last decade. (National Public Radio was the other.) Fox News’ believability scores are solidly above CBS, ABC and NBC, all of which saw steep declines in the last 10 years.

A recent study by a company called Poll Position found, as expected, that Fox is the preferred cable news channel among all total respondents, with a huge lead among conservative-identifying viewers. Perhaps surprisingly, the survey also found that Fox was preferred among people who describe themselves as politically independent. Add in the left-leaning viewers — who tune in like Red Sox fans who watch Yankees games to hope the Yanks lose — and you have a formula for ratings success Fox News can push for years to come.

by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University and author of  Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Originally published in the Indianapolis Star.

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