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Roger Ailes Lawsuit: Gretchen Carlson’s Ratings Performance Under Scrutiny as Sides Square Off

Gretchen Carlson Brook Baldwin Fox
Courtesy of Fox News

The ratings performance of Gretchen Carlson’s Fox News program “The Real Story” is under scrutiny on the heels of the anchor’s lawsuit against Fox News chief Roger Ailes alleging that she was let go last month after rebuffing his sexual advances.

Carlson’s suit pits the veteran anchor against one of media’s most powerful executives. Carlson alleged Wednesday in a lawsuit filed in Superior Court of New Jersey that she was removed from the Fox News Channel morning program “Fox & Friends” in 2013 after speaking out about the way she was treated by colleagues on the show. After that she moved from the highly rated morning program to the lower-profile 2 p.m. slot.

In a statement, Ailes said the allegations were “false” and “retaliatory” because Fox News did not renew her contract. According to a source familiar with the matter, Fox News’ position is that Carlson’s contract was not renewed because of the ratings performance of her 2 p.m. program “The Real Story,” which vies each day directly with an hour of “CNN Newsroom” anchored by Brooke Baldwin. Carlson’s attorneys dispute that assertion and say Carlson held her own despite little support from Fox News.

There is no doubt that Baldwin has given CNN a boost. Since moving in 2014 to host her afternoon program from New York, she has been notching periodic ratings gains in adults 25-54, the news demographic most coveted by advertisers. While Fox News Channel remains the nation’s most-watched cable network, Baldwin has won recent victories in the ad demo.

In June, “CNN Newsroom With Brooke Baldwin” won more viewers in adults 25-54 than Fox News (CNN’s 190,000 to Fox’s 186,000). Carlson’s show did notch a 25% year-to-year gain compared to a 26% lift for Baldwin. Baldwin’s 2 p.m. hour almost beat Carlson’s in the demo for the second quarter as well, according to Nielsen.

Since Carlson’s departure last month, Fox News has filled “Real Story” with rotating hosts, which presents another programming challenge. Cable-news networks typically like to give viewers a “name” anchor to gravitate towards. Without a regular host, Fox News will have to rely on breaking news and scoops to carry the day and snare audience attention.

A comparison of Carlson’s ratings with CNN’s is likely to play some role in the legal fight. Carlson alleges she was fired after rebuffing Ailes and bringing to attention the treatment of women at the network. Ailes may point to the recent ratings for “Real Story” and suggest he made a business decision not to renew Carlson’s contract, not only due to the performance of her show but the impact it has as the lead-in for “Shepard Smith Reporting,” which follows at 3 p.m.

In a statement on Thursday, Carlson’s lawyers said any attempt to place focus on Carlson’s ratings was erroneous. “Ailes’ claim that Gretchen Carlson was terminated because of bad ratings is demonstrably false,” said attorneys Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman in a statement. At the time Fox did not renew her contract, the attorneys said, “Gretchen’s total viewership was up 33% year to date and up 23% in the key demographic. After her firing from ‘Fox and Friends’ for complaining about discrimination, Gretchen was moved to a challenging time slot and denied support and promotion. Despite this, she succeeded and was the number-one cable news show in her time slot in total viewers.”

Total viewers, however, is not the measure by which Madison Avenue grades TV. Advertisers prefer to look at demographic ratings. For news, that demo is adults 25-54, not the 18-49 that is the standard for most TV, in recognition that older audiences predominantly watch more TV news.

In addition to slipping behind Baldwin, Carlson’s “Real Story” was facing other challenges: It was, according to Nielsen, Fox News’ lowest-rated program in the advertiser demo in both June and the second quarter. Fox viewed the timeslot as advantageous: It was previously occupied by Megyn Kelly.

The ratings dispute is unlikely to overshadow the broader issues being raised by Carlson’s suit. Attorneys for Carlson intend to examine past allegations of sexual harassment at the network, such as those raised in the unauthorized 2014 Ailes biography, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” authored by Gabriel Sherman. That book raises allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes as well as details of what is presented as a charged atmosphere for female employees at Fox News Channel. According to the book, Fox News has under Ailes placed great emphasis on showing bare legs of female anchors. The book also alleged that Ailes in past jobs made women uncomfortable during work conversations and interviews.

“Regarding Ailes’ claims that Gretchen’s allegations are false, we challenge him to deny, under oath, that he made the statements attributed to him in the complaint,” said Carlson’s attorneys Thursday.