The Genius of Roger Ailes: How Facebook/Fox GOP Debate Will Revolutionize Media Economics  

Reuters / Fred Prouser
Reuters / Fred Prouser

The Facebook/Fox News partnership for the first GOP debate of the 2016 presidential campaign season had the highest audience for any non-sports cable program, and was most-watched cable news program in history.

The artful coalescing of TV, cable and social media strengths has just revolutionized media economics. Throw in real estate magnate billionaire Donald Trump–the GOP frontrunner, and a reality TV star with near-universal name recognition (certainly higher than any of his competitors)—being center stage and the target of high-profile aggressive (and, as some have argued, unfair) questioning, and this debate was a massive success for the number-one-rated cable news network in terms of ratings.

The two-hour main Republican debate drew an audience of 24 million people. The market share was a stunning 16 and the audience included 7.9 million in the 25-54 year old demographic that advertisers crave. Nearly 11 million tuned in for post-debate analysis anchored by Megyn Kelly, another all-time-record for Fox News.

The “undercard debate” of seven lower-tier candidates also did very well for Fox News by drawing 6.1 million total viewers and 1.2 million in the 25-54 demographic, making it the third-highest audience for a primary debate in the history of cable news.

For comparison to the 2008 cycle: the first GOP debate on Oct. 9, 2007, simulcast on MSNBC and CNBC, drew a combined 2.141 million viewers; the most-watched GOP debate of that cycle was Jan. 5, 2008 on ABC with 7.4 million viewers and a market share of 5. That compares to the Democrats’ highest 2008 debate market share of a 10.

The Facebook co-sponsorship increased interactions on the Fox News Channel’s Facebook page view by 74 percent from a typical day in July. The 10 million Facebook video views were up 190 percent compared to the daily July 2015 average.

Despite the chaos with Trump before, during and after the debate, FNC chief Roger Ailes is now seen highly favorably for leveraging the size of his network’s ratings by successfully partnering with Facebook. By broadening Fox’s audience, which skews conservative, with Facebook’s users, who skew liberal, Ailes demonstrated that on-air news can thrive from a connected and mobile-screen experience.

To give some historical perspective, the first 2012 Republican debate, which also aired on Fox News, drew only 3.3 million viewers. The most-watched Republican primary debate of 2012 aired on ABC and drew 7.6 million viewers six months later–just slightly more than the undercard debate on Thursday. The prime time debate’s 16 market share compares to a 2008 Democrat record top debate share of 10 and a 2012 Republican record debate share of 5.

For Twitter social media users, who tend to follow news on national government and politics more than Facebook users, the debate ranked as the week’s top event on Twitter, with 3.3 million tweets and 393 million impressions. The Twitter debate following crushed Jon Stewart’s heavily promoted farewell episode on The Daily Show, according to Nielsen.

Moderator Megyn Kelly selected the final debate question from among 40,000 submissions from Facebook-engaged viewers. In a Facetime video clip, Chase A. Norton asked, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

The question proved radically unscripted, because if a member of the mainstream media had independently asked such question, he or she would risk being demeaned and professionally retaliated against by the liberal media’s thought police.

Norton, a Confederate-flag-supporting gun owner who says he is redeemed by Jesus Christ, had no clue his question would be asked as he watched the debate from his home in Blythewood, S.C. But unscripted question led to heart-felt answers:

  • Senator Ted Cruz said “I am blessed to receive the word of God every day,” and cited his father’s recovery from alcoholism through the help of Jesus;
  • Ohio Governor John Kasich said his faith and family were most important to him;
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said his Christian faith helped him “be decent going forward” when protesters were trying to boot him out of office; and
  • Ben Carson said the said the bully pulpit was a wonderful place to start healing the nation and incidents “between people of two races”.

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s news and global media partnership director, in told The Daily Dot, “Facebook’s scale and foundation in real identity give Fox News and the Republican contenders for the nomination the opportunity to open up the debate to Americans in a new and unique way.” The Dot added that with Facebook’s 1.49 billion monthly active users–213 million in the U.S. and Canada–Facebook’s participation helped pull in millennial-aged viewers who might ordinarily shun a Republican event.

From a financial point of view, the Fox/Facebook Republican debate has revolutionized the economics of media forever, due to its minimal production cost of about $500,000 and its success in generating a huge and sustained audience.

That compares to smaller network and cable show audiences from Game of Thrones episodes, costing $6 million to make, Breaking Bad, costing about $3 million; and Big Bang Theory, costing $2 million per episode.


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