USA Today's Michael Wolff: The Unbeatable Roger Ailes

USA Today's Michael Wolff: The Unbeatable Roger Ailes

Michael Wolf at USA Today has a column out detailing the domination of Fox News over its cable competitors. He states, “The 2013 numbers are out, and once more, for 12 years running, Ailes’ Fox News trashes everybody else in the cable news space, with an audience larger than CNN’s and MSNBC’s combined.”

It’s a one-man business. Ailes is the beginning and end. Since he took the lead from CNN a few years after he launched the network in 1996, nobody has come close to competing with him. He gets larger, everybody gets lesser, creating perhaps the single most infuriating circumstance in modern media. Ailes, ever taunting the liberal media establishment, is ever further beyond its reach.

In 2013, MSNBC, aping Fox’s political spin but on the left-wing side, sunk to third place in total viewership. CNN’s prime time audience has fallen back to where it was in 1993.

Fox, on the other hand, had the top 14 shows, and the top nine in the choicest demographic, 25- to 54-year-olds.

Of MSNBC and CNN’s competition with Fox News he describes:

There is a sense, of course, of some virtue in the competition with Ailes. He is the antichrist, and his competitors, however more dreary and more puerile, are somehow God’s better servants. CNN and MSNBC bang their heads against the wall, with their best public defense being that Ailes plays unfairly. But even when MSNBC came to play as unfairly, with tit for tat demagoguery, that didn’t work. So it’s something else.

In part, the answer is found in the numbers. The cable audience, for all the attention heaped on it for its theoretical political sway, is not that large.

The average Fox prime time audience in 2013 was little more than a million people. MSNBC’s 2013 non-election-year prime time viewership was 640,000, CNN’s 568,000 (but for the first time in two years, MSNBC fell behind CNN’s daytime audience).

And Ailes has strategically played the numbers game:

These are target marketing rather than mass market numbers. Magazine numbers. Ailes is not only a programmer but a media marketer. His was an astute analysis of the largest and most stable part of the cable news audience, a kind of passionate couch potato (network news still commands that larger audience of catatonic couch potatoes). This was an older and less urban audience, which left its competitors to fight over a younger and more fickle audience. The loss of audience share to other news and entertainment options (from Jon Stewart to digital news) has been much more severe for CNN and MSNBC.

So why fight a losing battle against Fox News? Wolf explains:

They think, perhaps, that Ailes at 73 can’t do this forever. And that whoever replaces Ailes can’t do it as well as Ailes. But by that time, of course, there may be no television audience at all.