Who can win the next cable news war?
As CNN and FOX News pivot in the face of turbulent times, four other cable news organizations are waiting to grab big audiences: One may disappear, one is waiting to be noticed, one is happy where it is, and one faces a big opportunity. Center Director Jeffrey Cole explains.
By Jeffrey Cole
In the forty-year history of 24/7 cable news networks, the ground is shifting like never before.
At the two biggest news networks, CNN and FOX News, there is profound change that may disorient and confound their audiences, forcing them to the left or right.
CNN, under strict budget cutbacks from its new owner, is forsaking its slightly left position and racing toward the middle. For the first time, it is fact-checking President Biden.
FOX News (and all the Murdoch properties), which built its programming over the past six years around Donald Trump, has abandoned the former President and embraced Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The day after Trump recently announced his third presidential bid, Murdoch’s New York Post covered the story with a small banner across the bottom of page one: “Florida Man Makes Announcement (p.26).” Ouch!
While these two channels, which I discussed at length in my last column, make up more than 50% of the audience for around-the-clock news, there are four other players. At least two stand to benefit, perhaps significantly, from the makeovers at the two behemoths.
Founded in 1996, the same year as FOX News, MSNBC was originally a joint venture by Microsoft (the MS) and NBC.
The channel staked out a very different position. Seeing CNN with a solidly centrist focus (it gradually shifted slightly leftward in the years to follow) and knowing the reliably conservative Murdoch would carve out a space on the right, MBNBC found its place on the left. That is where it has stayed and prospered. Frequently, it is the second most watched network behind FOX News. Within a few years, Microsoft ceded some, and then all, of its ownership to NBC.
MSNBC has been a talent boot camp for NBC network news.
The reverse was true when NBC News anchor Brian Williams resigned the evening news due to a credibility problem. He moved to MSNBC, where he successfully anchored the Eleventh Hour for five years before retiring. Rachel Maddow, the best-known anchor at the channel, built a highly rated daily primetime show until cutting back to one hour a week to pursue other interests.
MSNBC was ready when Trump became president. During those years, well-regarded traditional Republicans such as Nicole Wallace and Michael Steele found a welcome home and success at MSNBC.
The channel is full of Trump critics from The Justice Department (both Republican and Democratic administrations), the FBI, universities, The New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere.
The solidly left positioning of MSNBC has worked well for the channel. It is not looking to reposition itself or pull the rug out from under its audience. It is happy where it is. Changes at CNN may send some of the moderate or slightly left audience its way. The increases in audience, as well as potential defection of some Trump loyalists from FOX News, will likely give MBNBC a real shot at moving into the number one position.
One America News Network (OAN)
If MSNBC is the most left facing of all the networks, OAN is the furthest to the right. They are not evenly spaced from the center. If we think of Earth as the center of the universe (a quaint old notion before Copernicus), then MSNBC is Mars while OAN is Pluto (whatever it now is thought to be)!
OAN, based in San Diego, was founded by Robert Herring in 2013. At its peak it reached thirty-five million homes, but its ratings at any one time averaged about 14,000. The channel is full of conspiracy theories that appeal to its hugely conservative, pro-Trump audience. George Soros, COVID Vaccines, Black Lives Matter protesters, and just about anyone to the left of OAN (i.e., anyone) are the targets of wild theories.
This is the position OAN staked out, far to the right of FOX. Paraphrasing The New York Times motto, OAN has “all the news unfit to air.” One of its better-known anchors, attorney Christina Bobb, left OAN to work for Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where she signed a statement certifying that all Presidential records had been surrendered (before the warrant). Bobb now faces legal sanctions.
Most of OAN’s reach came from being carried on DirecTV, owned at the time by AT&T. Facing criticism, the telco stopped carrying the channel, which then lost 90% of its carriage. Verizon stopped carrying OAN this year. It no longer appears on cable.
OAN has become irrelevant and will likely disappear within a year.
NewsNation began life in 1978 as Superstation WGN. Now owned by Nexstar, based in Chicago, it added a three-hour news block (now nine hours) to its mix of entertainment and sports programming in 2021.
The need for strong liberal and conservative channels based on fact and reason is more apparent than ever. That position on the left is filled. It is open on the right, waiting for a new entrant or a nimble incumbent able to show flexibility and foresight. This opportunity is fleeting.
NewsNation’s best-known anchor is Chris Cuomo who joined in October a year after being forced out at CNN. Two years ago at CNN, Cuomo was tied for ratings with Anderson Cooper, while his brother Andrew, a frequent and popular guest on his show, was the Governor who seemed to be best managing COVID and a sure candidate for President. A lot can change in two years!
So far, NewsNation has not attracted attention, and its ratings are tiny. Its political position seems to be between CNN and MSNBC. The great interest in the midterm election coverage did not accrue to NewsNation’s advantage. Its biggest challenge is staying alive long enough to get noticed.
This is the channel that has the greatest opportunity to benefit by repositioning itself in the midst of all the movement elsewhere in 24/7 news. Founded in 1998 shortly after FOX and MSBNC, Newsmax, finding the conservative side of the news spectrum mostly occupied, moved further right than FOX News.
In its 24-year history, Newsmax has always lived in the shadow of the well-funded, highly-rated FOX News. All that could change as FOX News takes on the former President and his base, the largest part of its audience.
At the same time, 91-year-old Rupert Murdoch’s control of the channel is loosening as his son, Lachlan, takes over. The extent of Lachlan’s long-term commitment to FOX News is not clear. It might now be at the peak of its value.
More than ever before, the loyal audiences of all the news channels (except MSNBC) may be confounded and looking for new outlets by sampling some of the competition.
For conservatives, there is nowhere else to go besides Newsmax.
The channel’s founder, Christopher Ruddy, has long shown himself to be a pragmatist. Although an ardent backer of conservative causes and candidates, he has also supported more moderate campaigns. Bill Clinton considers him a friend. Media critic Jon Friedman finds that “Newsmax has flourished because Ruddy has exhibited a stronger commitment to the bottom line than to presenting himself as an ideologue.”
The midterm elections demonstrated that the influence of Trump and his base might have started to erode. There is now a serious threat to Trump within the Republican party from DeSantis (and others).
It is clear that “crazy town” (the Trump MAGA crowd) will not win elections except in bright red congressional districts. Coverage of groundless accusations and conspiracy theories are increasingly likely to repel both audiences and advertisers.
Now is the time to build a conservative news channel based on traditional Republican principles of strong defense, conservative fiscal policy, personal freedom, and self-reliance. This was what Murdoch (and Roger Ailes) originally promised FOX News would be: conservative, “fair and balanced.” They just never delivered.
This is a timely opening that Newsmax could fill. It has already demonstrated a flexibility the other channels do not share.
The need for strong liberal and conservative channels based on fact and reason is more apparent than ever. That position on the left is filled. It is open on the right, waiting for a new entrant or a nimble incumbent able to show flexibility and foresight.
This opportunity is fleeting.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
November 30, 2022