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Cable news outlets focused on nothing last week but the presidential election. On Fox News Channel, however, Bill Hemmer found a few seconds to peer into the future.

“The thing about our industry, Dana, and you know it very well: When there is information, when there is data, when the story is changing, you can run on adrenaline for a long time,” he said to anchor Dana Perino during hours spent on air. “It’s those periods where you hit
the walls and nothing is new and you start to think, ‘Hmm, what’s next?’”

A lot of top media executives will be called upon in the coming days to answer Hemmer’s question. Gobs of influence and millions of dollars are at stake.

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have for more than four years been caught up in the whirlwind of the Trump presidency, a period when tweets, not physical news events, could scuttle the lineup of an hourlong show at a moment’s notice. The frenzy has lifted the ratings and ad sales of all three networks, and the anchors who fill their schedules, to the point where more people tuned in to the cablers’ primetime coverage of the election aftermath than they did CBS, NBC and ABC. The numbers have been helped by people stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tucker Carlson on one October night lured 7.56 million viewers to Fox News, while Rachel Maddow drew her largest audience to MSNBC — 5.7 million viewers — in July.

Yet there’s palpable concern the spotlight may fade with the departure of President Donald Trump and the arrival of President-elect Joe Biden. “What happens when the level isn’t Defcon 5 all the time?” asks Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “We may be about to find out.”   

Lachlan Murdoch, speaking to investors on Election Day, suggested that even the nation’s most watched cable news outlet — his own — may see some portion of the audience dissipate (though he assured Wall Streeters that Fox News Channel would maintain the lion’s share of the remaining news crowd). “I would expect as we enter a more normal news cycle, which has to happen eventually, that appetite for news will shift back to appetite for the great American pastimes of watching football, and watching baseball, and watching ‘The Masked Singer’ or ‘I Can See Your Voice,’ and we look forward to that shift,” said Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News’ parent, Fox Corp.

The prospect has some competitors salivating — especially those who don’t already have news content. “News looks like it could potentially go back to normal,” said David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery, speaking recently to investors.

One projection for the three big cable news outlets calls for a downturn in 2021. Total ad sales at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC are seen falling 13.1% next year, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence — to approximately $2.48 billion from $2.85 billion in 2020. That dynamic is typical of a post-election business year, when the news stakes are typically lower, and Americans don’t have a near constant horse race beckoning them.

Next year could defy those predictions. The nation has been crippled by the coronavirus, and the networks will have access to homebound viewers for some time. The White House will grapple with climate change and social justice over the next several months as well, says Andrew Heyward, a senior research professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and former president of CBS News. Of course, a post-election Trump may choose to energize his base and offer norm-busting takes on current events from the sidelines. “There are a lot of wild cards,” says Heyward

The news outlets are likely to be occupied with many other challenges, including recalibrating themselves for a Biden presidency:

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker is considering an exit, giving the network more to ponder than most. During Zucker’s tenure, CNN has taken on a more aggressive stance, giving anchors like Don Lemon, Brianna Keilar and Chris Cuomo greater license to be pugnacious as the network brandishes a “Facts First” image. Will that disposition be suited to the Biden White House? If Zucker should choose to go, who will take over? Will staffers hang around to see how CNN fares in what has been a tumultuous era under WarnerMedia owner AT&T? And will CNN have to focus more heavily on a stand-alone product for streaming audiences?

MSNBC has in past cycles seen its ratings tumble when a Democrat is in charge, but executives think viewers will be more engaged, not less, under a Biden presidency, according to a person familiar with the network. These executives believe MSNBC fans will have increased interest as the nation tries to rebuild from the coronavirus and Democrats work out differences between centrists and progressives. There is also a continued emphasis on developing programs for streaming viewers, such as one featuring Zerlina Maxwell that recently debuted on NBCUniversal’s Peacock.

Fox News’ audience has been rapt during the months leading up to the election, but one analyst wonders if Trump might seek to launch a competing outlet for conservatives, potentially by using a small Fox News rival like OANN or Newsmax. “We speculate that perhaps, over time, the new network could lop off around 20% of the Fox News audience and reach 10% share of the entire news market,” says Michael Nathanson of research firm MoffettNathanson in a recent note. “We love competition,” Murdoch recently said. “We have always thrived with competition, and we have strong competition now.” In recent years, Fox has told advertisers and investors that Fox News has sizable reach not just among right-wing viewers but among independent voters and swing-state residents. If that’s the case, its news division could be as important to growth as its controversial and hell-raising opinion counterpart.

A Biden presidency won’t have the urgent tabloid snap of its predecessor, but news executives will remain under pressure to deliver eyeballs. With more viewers moving to streaming video for drama and comedy, news — along with sports — is one of the few surefire ways TV companies have of assembling the large, live audiences that advertisers and distributors covet. CNN and Fox News are among the greatest contributors of profit to their corporate parents, and a surging MSNBC would have new opportunities to drive higher rates from sponsors and cable systems.

With Trump out of the White House, “the decibel level will come down,” predicts Sesno, but the nation is still fractured along political lines. “Division and debate won’t disappear and may even amplify,” he adds. Chances are your favorite cable news outlet will stick around for the foreseeable future.