Sean Hannity may not be worried about the 2020 election — if he is, he hasn’t said it on his Fox News Channel show — but his ultimate boss has indicated media investors might have some cause for concern.
The executive who has final oversight of Fox News Channel suggested Tuesday that the surge in audiences enjoyed by news networks may fall noticeably after the 2020 election — a development that could have ramifications for some of the nation’s biggest media companies.
“I would expect that as we enter a more normal news cycle, which will happen eventually, that appetite for news will shift,” said Lachlan Murdoch, executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation, during a Tuesday call with investors. Fox, he added, would focus on keeping its share of viewership, so that it could continue to maintain leverage in the advertising market and wield influence with its audience and newsmakers.
One factor in such a prediction is whether Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, prevails against President Donald Trump. Biden is less prone to make declarations on Twitter — and to show up with great frequency on primetime Fox News programs like “Hannity” or morning programs such as “Fox & Friends.” Murdoch did not cite either Biden or Trump in his reasoning.
Every presidential election brings with it a spike in viewership for news outlets, a dynamic typically more pronounced at cable networks like Fox News, CNN and MSNBC than it is for broadcast offerings like “CBS Evening News,” “Today” or “20/20.” And a downturn after the next resident of the Oval Office is usually inevitable. But any audience erosion from news in 2021 and beyond would be more difficult for big media companies to absorb as the viewers that normally watch primetime scripted series continue to migrate to streaming-video options to watch their favorite dramas and sitcoms.
“Appetite for news is out of our control,” Murdoch said, adding later: “What we aim to control is share. We have through 18 years of administrations, we have maintained our number-one position through all of that.” He said: “The news cycle will moderate, [but] we fully expect to be number one and maintain share around that.”
Five of the nation’s biggest cable-news operations — Fox News Channel, CNN. MSNBC, CNBC and Fox Business Network — are projected to take in more than $3.1 billion in advertising in 2020, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence, and more than $2.7 billion in fees from cable and satellite distributors. And while the affiliate money is likely to stay stable, the advertising dollars would fall if ratings were to moderate. MSNBC would have the most cause for concern. According to Kagan, that network, controlled by NBCUniversal, relies more heavily on ad revenue than distribution money. The other four make more of their money from the fees they charge cable systems.
The potential for a downturn is cause for hand-wringing at the news operations. MSNBC in particular has in past cycles seen a noticeable shift in viewership when politics are not at the fore of the national conversation. Meanwhile, attention to politics in recent days has been gobsmacking: Fox News Channel has seen enormous surges for primetime hosts like Tucker Carlson, who last week hosted a broadcast that drew 7.6 million viewers — more than the season premiere of NBC favorite “This Is Us.”
Media companies like Fox, NBCUniversal, Walt Disney, ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia have come to rely more heavily on their news operations in recent years. More of the broadcast networks have ceded additional time on their daytime and primetime schedules for news programs and special reports — including an afternoon hour at ABC anchored by Amy Robach. ViacomCBS’ NIckelodeon recently unveiled an effort to relaunch “Nick News,” the kids-news unit led by anchor Linda Ellerbee until she retired in 2016. Its new leader hails from CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Fox has launched a direct-to-consumer business for international markets so consumers overseas can watch Fox News Channel. The virtual halls of CNN (where, like many media companies, employees are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic) are filled with chatter and speculation about whether Jeff Zucker, president of the AT&T-owned network since 2013, will stay after the election or perhaps leave in 2021.
There is some expectation that the furious news cycle that has gripped the nation for the past four years may continue. The next president faces grave challenges, including the pandemic and a worsening climate. “The news cycle always adapts to a new president, and early on, there is so much to cover in a new administration or a second term,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director, in a recent interview. Journalists will need to keep an eye on the pandemic’s economic fallout — and more. “It seems to me there is still going to be an interesting story for us to cover, regardless of the winner.”
Others see a chance to broaden the focus beyond that of a Commander-in-Chief who likes to seize the news cycle at a moment’s notice. “My challenge every day is to fit it all into an hour, and we have many good stories that sometimes don’t make it based on the availability of time,” says Bret Baier, the Fox News Channel anchor who will help present election coverage on that network this evening. He echoes a sentiment that has been ringing throughout TV newsrooms for years.
Indeed, CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell senses that a Biden presidency might give journalists more time to expand the scope of their queries and investigations. “A lot of issues have really gotten short shrift because the president consumes so much air time and so much coverage, just by the multiple comments he makes each day,” the “CBS Evening News” anchor says in a recent interview. But news organizations could do more to examine such topics as veterans’ affairs, she says, or how Congress deals with the inner workings of the U.S. government. “I do think it would fundamentally change the way the press corps functions, fundamentally change cable news,” she adds. Media companies may have to grapple with how it changes their ratings and revenue.
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