Can Donald Trump Save Cable News -- in the Post Trump Era
Who knows what Donald Trump will do when he leaves the Oval Office. Will he go back to putting his name on hotels and skyscrapers and golf courses? Maybe.
Will he spend a lot of time playing golf and lying about his score? Probably.
Will he be indicted for something or other that Democrats come up with? Not out of the realm of the possible.
But unless he’s locked up and at the supermax prison in Colorado there’s one thing we know for sure: He’ll be back on television sooner rather than later – because, as I’ve noted before, he needs airtime the way the rest of us need air. He needs it to survive.
And as the election chaos of 2020 has finally drawn to its inevitable close – despite the fact that Mr. Trump has not conceded and probably never will -- I’m hearing from more and more people who tell me that they stopped watching cable TV news. And by that they mean they stopped watching Fox.
As the New York Times reported a few days ago, "In recent weeks, CNN is regularly beating Fox News, the longtime No. 1 cable news network, in total viewers. CNN has also led in the advertiser-friendly bracket of adults under the age of 54 every day for more than a month, its longest such streak since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001."
And it's not only CNN that Fox needs to worry about. MSNBC's "Morning Joe" has beaten "Fox & Friends" for four weeks straight, and Rachel Maddow is beating Sean Hannity in the ratings for the first time in almost two years.
All this raises a question: As our soon-to-be former president slowly fades (at least a little) from the daily news cycle, is it possible that Fox News, like Mr. Trump himself, will also fade into something less relevant than it was when Donald Trump was president?
But it's not only at Fox where the future is uncertain. Even at CNN and MSNBC -- where ratings have hit new highs -- they're also uneasy about a future without Donald Trump generating controversy and ratings.
According to the Times, "Now faced with a Trump-less future, top executives at [CNN and MSNBC] have summoned star anchors and producers to private meetings in recent weeks, seeking answers to a pressing question: What’s next?
"People at both networks know that viewers who abhorred President Trump may no longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon. And President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. seems unlikely to generate the 24/7 grist of drama and scandal that resurrected cable news, taking it from a dying medium to a focal point of modern politics."
Bill O'Reilly, who was a ratings juggernaut at Fox News, recently wrote that, “Because the press has abandoned its mandate of searching for the truth without ideology, many news consumers will abandon the news industry in response.”
He went on to opine that, “Ratings for all the television news programs will recede. I mean what exactly will they cover? Hating or loving Mr. Trump was the entire game for the past five years. Now, it’s Joe Biden. Talk about culture shock.”
Bill is only partially right, I think. Ratings may continue to drop because with Donald Trump gone (at least from the White House) the news won’t be as … let’s call it … interesting.
But I don’t believe ratings will drop because “the press has abandoned its mandate for searching the truth without ideology.”
Cable news viewers – a lot of them, anyway -- don’t want news without ideology. They want news with ideology – as long as it’s their ideology.
That, I believe, is why Fox News ratings have dropped since the election. Many Fox viewers abandoned the channel because they thought the news side of Fox was too even-handed. That’s not why they tune in.
Roger Ailes was a visionary who created Fox News, who took it from an idea and turned it into a media, political and cultural force -- as well as a multi-billion dollar behemoth.
He led his audience to believe they could count on Fox to validate their opinions, to confirm their values. It worked for a long time. But Donald Trump has been disillusioned with Fox for a while now, believing its hard news journalists haven't been sufficiently loyal to him.
On Election Night Fox was the first network to call Arizona for Joe Biden. And since that night Fox reporters have referred to Biden as the "president-elect" -- further alienating Mr. Trump from his old favorite channel.
And so it became clear that many Fox viewers would be more loyal to Mr. Trump than to Fox and that more than a few would abandon the channel for friendlier conservative venues -- leaving Fox to ward off challengers from both the left (CNN and MSNBC) and the right (Newsmax and OANN).
Since Bill O’Reilly often gave me the last word on his old Fox show, let me repay the courtesy and give Bill the final word here, a final thought from his recent column:
“There is only one thing that might stave off the disaster that TV news is facing. And that would be if one Donald Trump secures a commentary position, bringing a potential audience of 74 million with him. Again, irony all over the place. The man who destroyed the media – could be the only one who might be able to save it.”
As Donald Trump has often said … We’ll see!