Not to pat myself on the back (OK, maybe a little), but this was easily predictable the day after the election — and even more so as President Obama’s inauguration approached: Conservative talk hosts, or at least those who anchor Fox News Channel’s lineup, are enjoying a solid post-election bump.
Bill O’Reilly — not a self-professed conservative, but clearly more antagonistic toward what he calls “secular-progressives” than any other political constituency — was up 33% in February compared to the previous year, averaging 3.6 million viewers in just-issued Nielsen data. Sean Hannity — an unapologetic pit bull for the right — rose 38% (to nearly 2.8 million) now that he’s shed former co-host Alan Colmes and, along with Rush Limbaugh, picked up the mantle for the GOP cause while proclaiming his radio show “conservatism in exile.” And Fox has further burnished its openly conservative credentials with the addition of Glenn Beck — one of the least sophisticated voices in the cable space, who started in January and has doubled his timeslot.
Granted, like all the cable news channels, Fox still skews heavily toward those over age 55, but it’s overall gains have included solid increases among adults 25-54 — the prime currency for news ad rates, which should put a smile on the face of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. It’s no secret that Ailes and outgoing News Corp. CEO Peter Chernin were never particularly close, and the strong performance by FNC should ensure that others within the News empire tread cautiously in encroaching on Ailes’ fiefdom.
The one potential negative is that Fox risks narrowing its lens — becoming a balm to those still angry over the election results, resentful about Obama’s victory and ranting about socialism — while excluding more of the moderates and liberals that the channel attracted. Frankly, when I turned to FNC not long ago and heard Hannity still railing about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, it was hard not to think, “Geez, dude, let it go. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Still, when a relatively small slice of the U.S. population like 2.4 million viewers (Fox’s overall primetime average in February — a 28% year-to-year improvement) can tower over the direct cable-news competition in total audience, you needn’t please all the people all the time. And fortunately, when it comes to delivering eyeballs media buyers don’t quibble about little things — beginning with how bitter they might be.
Update: O’Reilly addressed Fox’s post-election ratings on his program in the “Talking Points” opening on Feb. 26, but he appeared to draw the wrong conclusion. “Americans are worried, and they want the truth,” he said, attacking the usual targets — NBC News, the New York Times — in his self-serving argument that nobody can expect “real” news for those left-leaning sources.
Perhaps that’s parly responsible for FNC’s rise, but another source seems considerably more likely: Americans who can’t believe that their side lost, and who look to Fox News for reinforcement of their views and reassurance.