NEW YORK — The midterm elections ushered in a new political era for the country. Will it bring a new era for Fox News?
Roger Ailes positioned the network as a counterbalance to the liberal bias he sees pervading the news media.
And each time FNC crosses a milestone, pundits look for a political reason to attribute to its success.
But last week’s midterms gave it two big reasons not to succeed.
First, the elections were a big victory for Democrats. Second, Fox scotched the heavy-hitters from a primetime sked built on the appeal of red-meat commentators.
On election nights, Fox benches commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and puts coverage in the hands of Brit Hume, who this year boasted more election experience than all three network anchors combined.
In contrast, CNN and MSNBC deployed commentators in news roles. Lou Dobbs anchored the evening for CNN while MSNBC had Keith Olbermann at the anchor desk as well as conservative pundits Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson.
Throughout election night, the Fox News studio was eerily quiet as the drama unfolded.
The tiny studio a reminder that though Fox bills itself as “the most powerful name in news,” it still operates on a shoestring compared with the facilities and promotional budgets lavished on CNN’s shows.
The tenor was downright un-Foxian until Hume threw to Shepard Smith at midnight. “He is young and fresh and attractive and full of energy that I wish I had,” he said.
From the start, Fox approached the night with caution, skeptical of the steady drumbeat of analyses that had predicted big gains for Democrats.
Early on, after the first polls closed at 7 p.m., Hume warned viewers not to make too much of exit poll data. “We caution you to be careful; it’s still early in the night,” he said.
When it came to calling the House for the Democrats, Fox played it safe, making the call nearly 20 minutes after NBC. Earlier, Fox News executive director of political programs Marty Ryan said the net didn’t want to buy into the pre-election conventional wisdom.
“The pundits at least think the Democrats are going to take over the House,” he said. “We are going to watch the race and see what happens.”
In the wee hours of the morning, Weekly Standard editor and Fox pundit Bill Kristol predicted Democrats would take the Senate.
The transition in the House and Senate marks the first time Democrats have been in control since Fox’s string of 250-odd weeks in first place began. FNC hadn’t launched the last time Dems had control of both the House and Senate, in 1994.
FNC dominated during the Republican Convention in 2004. CNN had huge gains during the Democratic Convention in the same year.
But on a night that was a good one for liberals, Fox News held its own, increasing 12% over the last midterm election. CNN’s gains were bigger on the night, and the net won the 25-54 demo.
The results seemed to fit the prevailing pattern: CNN gets a big aud for significant news events but has trouble hanging on to it when the news dies down.
The following night, Fox returned to its old vigorous self. O’Reilly was off the bench and grilling Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer about the presumptive speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
The rise of the Dems could open a new era for FNC, which as an institution clings to its underdog status, even when its ahead in the ratings.
Schumer urged O’Reilly not to prejudge Pelosi, saying her style as leader of the Democrats will be “pragmatic.”
Said O’Reilly: “I hope so, because if she isn’t, you know who’s going to be right on her butt, don’tcha?”