Fox News is facing an identity crisis. In what’s become one of the most unlikely developments in a year brimming with surprises, the most-watched prime-time cable network—long criticized for being a mouthpiece for the Republican party—is now experiencing a falling out with pro-Trump audiences.
The trouble started on Election Night, when the network’s decision desk projected before any other mainstream cable news outlet that former Vice President Joe Biden had beaten President Donald Trump in Arizona. In the following days, Fox joined the chorus of networks in reporting the electoral vote-based projection that Biden had won the 2020 presidential race.
These simple judgment calls infuriated Trump and elicited backlash from Fox’s MAGA base. Yet the network continued to kneecap Trump’s baseless claims that he’d won the election—“by a lot,” in his words—when, a week later, Fox News host Neil Cavuto cut off a live White House press conference after press secretary Kayleigh McEnany made unfounded allegations that Trump’s defeat was the result of widespread voter fraud. Two days after that, a clip of Fox News anchor Sandra Smith went viral after she was caught on a hot mic mocking a guest who’d expressed disbelief that Biden had clinched the nomination.
In response, Trump turned to Twitter, where he wrote that Fox “forgot the Golden Goose” that made the network successful. Declarations of a Fox boycott ensued across social media among swaths of Trump supporters who said they’d follow the President’s lead and migrate to channels with unabashedly pro-Trump views.
In some ways, it appears the political climate in post-election 2020 has cleaved the Republican party in half: in one camp are garden-variety conservatives who appear either happy to move on after Trump or otherwise see his defeat as a referendum of his policies; in the other camp are dyed-in-the-wool Trump loyalists who apparently refuse to accept that Trump lost.
In response, a few media outlets—namely, Newsmax and One America News Network—have positioned themselves as the alternative to Fox, and now see an opportunity to increase market share by essentially echoing far-right consumers’ ignorance, including peddling outright conspiracy theories related to the 2020 race.
Perhaps no media outlet stands to capitalize on the vacuum left by Fox in the post-election media ecosystem than Newsmax. The Boca Raton-based network, which was described by journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute as “comfort food for staunch Trump supporters” that “shamelessly promotes baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud,” currently appears on about 70 million cable boxes around the country and projects to add another 10 million by the end of 2021’s first quarter.
The network’s programming strategy, ostensibly, is to provide an alternative reality for MAGA supporters who believe Trump was the true winner of the election. As Newsmax host Greg Kelly said on the air shortly after the race: “President-elect Joe Biden? I don’t think so. I just don’t think so. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t feel right. And it’s not right.”
It appears to be working. Prior to November, Newsmax’s top shows typically attracted an audience of about 60,000. According to a New York Times November 22 report, however, its 7 p.m. slot last Thursday drew an unexpected 1.1 million viewers, its largest audience ever. The company reported in November that its news app saw three million downloads within the last month alone.
One America News Network is another once-obscure network that appears poised to poach would-be Fox viewers through a seemingly endless stream of pro-Trump content as well as far-fetched conspiracy theories.
The San Diego-based broadcaster, which in May was described by The Atlantic as Trump’s “favorite cable-news network,” employs hosts who've reported on the Pizzagate hoax as well as conspiracy theories surrounding the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. The low-budget network, which doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen’s TV ratings but is available on DirecTV as well as via subscription on most streaming devices, has earned a “low” rating by media bias resource mediabiasfactcheck.com, based on “far-right bias, lack of sourcing, promotion of conspiracy theories, and propaganda as well as numerous failed fact checks.”
OANN on Nov. 12 published a news segment titled “Dominion-izing the Vote,” which interviewed a former admin. of fringe political conspiracy theory QAnon-linked website 8kun—referred to in the segment as a “cyber analyst”—who baselessly claimed that voting machines made by electronic voting software company Dominion Voting Systems may have rigged the election, thereby “giving Biden a fraudulent win.” That segment, shared via Twitter by Trump, has hit more than a million views on YouTube.
The New York Times in November reported that media measurement company Comscore couldn’t report audience data for OANN because the network “does not meet the minimum reporting standards required to be included in Comscore’s national television measurement.” YouTube in November temporarily banned OANN for repeatedly violating its policies by posting misinformation regarding COVID-19.
The 2020 presidential election has proven to be a boon for media outlets specializing in misinformation. According to NewsGuard, which rates the reliability of news and information sites for brands, right-wing political blog The Gateway Pundit, one of the best-known political conspiracy sites, saw engagement spike by 81 percent in the weeks after the election.
Viewership at Fox News, meanwhile, has been in a rare tailspin since Election Day. Fox mainstay Tucker Carlson—who normally rules among prime-time cable offerings—fell behind CNN’s Anderson Cooper last Friday in the coveted 25–54 age demographic. Fox’s daytime viewership in the two weeks since Election Day has dropped 32 percent, according to Nielsen.
Given this sudden sea change, one might wonder what we can anticipate the multi-billion-dollar right-wing media landscape to look like in 2021, in a political environment where nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of conservatives now believe Trump was “cheated” out of the election, according to a November CloudResearch.com poll.
Angelo Carusone, president of media watchdog Media Matters for America, told O’Dwyer’s that Fox’s business model is less threatened by any direct competition from Newsmax and OANN than those networks’ potential ability to build their brands on small flare ups that could potentially chip away at Fox’s audience—and roster of talent—over time.
According to Carusone, Fox’s revenues don’t come primarily from advertising but from the hefty carriage fees the network charges cable operators. Arguably, if Fox doesn’t have an engaged audience it’s hard to convince cable companies to pay those fees, but one of Fox’s better-known secrets is the unusual inertia of its audience: people who watch Fox typically do so for hours on end, from daytime news coverage through the opinion shows at night (this is why hosts come and go with little change to the network’s ratings).
Most likely, Carusone said the greatest long-term threat to Fox will be from a perspective of political relevancy. Newsmax is willing to put a lot of money on the table to widen its audience, and its ability to harness reactionary voices that cater to far-right audiences may eventually spill over into a modest migration of talent that eventually dilutes Fox’s political power.
“Fox has decided that it wants it both ways,” Carusone said. “They want to attack Biden and do all the partisan stuff, but I also anticipate we’re going to see a lot more fact-checking and corrections from their opinion people on things they would’ve let go in the past, not because they want some kind of balance but because a lot of it is straight revenge. It’s personal. They’ve been attacked pretty relentlessly and they have nothing to lose, so I think you’ll see a lot more of this sniping and flare ups between Newsmax and Fox. They’re going to be a bit more antagonistic.”
“These little fires we’re seeing aren’t going to let out, and they’re almost certainly going to elicit backlash from far-right audiences,” Carusone continued. “The news people at Fox will do these one-offs that will inflame the far-right, and of course, Newsmax will capitalize on every one of those moments. Anything they can do to inflame their audience and intensify their base will only make them demand more of the far-right stuff you can’t get from Fox.”