Trump, Murdoch, Ailes: A Trifecta of Woe, By The Numbers
They’ve built their business lives on numbers, and this week’s numbers measure the collective, interwoven fates of Donald Trump, Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. Toting up those woes, the trio’s many critics may feel – this week at least – like they’ve won the Schadenfreude Olympics.
For two full decades, Ailes built the defining misinformation medium of its time, the Fox News Channel, serving in near-perfect measure the twin goals of his employer, Rupert Murdoch.
Fox both enabled Murdoch’s entry into American politics and fed his coffers, now bringing in 20% of 21st Century Fox’s profits. In turn, Fox’s self-parodying yet astoundingly effective “fair and balanced” shtick broke all the ground Donald Trump needed to mount a breathtaking Presidential campaign.
Fox, and Ailes, enjoyed a period of ambivalence about Trump’s rise, along the same trajectories of Ailes and Murdoch’s own nuanced relationship with the Tea Party. They built a propaganda machine that enabled the manufacture of an alternative Republicanism, an alternative that ended up throwing a wrench in the old monied elite apparatus that they had in many ways helped to create.
The Tea Party both proved out Ailes’, Murdoch’s and Fox News’ power – and greatly complicated Fox’s ability to serve and satisfy both the new Right and the old Right. In its lost esteem over the past three or four years – which we can track in its wavering reputation, quantified below – we can see the struggles of Ailes.
If Gretchen Carlson hadn’t undone him with her fearless sexual harassment charge, Ailes and the News Corp leadership would still have had to deal with a dicey positioning, come 2017.
At this juncture in the Presidential campaign – one that looks like it may be a turning point but could be just another bend – there’s no doubt that developer who would be President has built his campaign on Trumped facts. Those facts are echoed Stephen Colbert’s satirical defense of “truthiness,” which, of course, employed Fox News as its model. Without Fox’s innovation in successfully convincing millions of its own “facts,” nominee Trump would have been less possible.
First published at Politico Media
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As Trump emerged from the Republican pack, he looked to be The Murdochian Candidate, not Rupert’s first choice – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz offered, at various points more potential – but the last man standing with whom Rupert thought he could bargain and partner.
Now, the collective run of Trump, Murdoch and Ailes looks like it is running into a wall of its own making. That may portend substantial changes at Fox News itself, as I recently laid out (“As Fox’s Dr Frankenstein Exits Right, the Murdochs Are Left to Reboot Their Wounded Cable News Leader”) and, perhaps, a wider generational changing of the political guard.
Let’s review the week’s numbers: Donald Trump’s campaign appears to be slumping, as August polls now show double-digits opening up between Trump and Hillary Clinton. The agonizingly long American election season campaigns have driven about two-thirds of the electorate to believe that the thrice-married, four-times-bankrupted master of his own reality showman is unfit to serve as President.
For Roger Ailes, the body count of misdeeds just continues to pile up, as New York Magazine writer Gabriel Sherman unpacks more Ailes dirty laundry. In tracing Ailes’ apparent sex-for-hire and placement-on-the-Fox-payroll of Laurie Luhn, Sherman did more than add to Ailes’ shattered reputation. He revealed the company’s enabling, and knowledge, of the relationship, and in so doing indicted more of the Fox leadership still left in place after Ailes’ lightning-speed departure. Now, the question: Who knew what when, and what did they do about it? The Roger Ailes body count at Fox News is only likely to mount.
Then, there’s FNC itself.
We’ve noted the rich irony of the timing of Roger Ailes’ ejection from the den of news iniquity that he built – just three hours before Trump accepted the Republican nomination in Cleveland. What should have been a triumphant moment of Trump’s ascension, one made uniquely possible by the political climate Ailes had willed, became instead a turning point. The channel’s anchors began giving each other the silent treatment, as pro- and anti-Ailes sides lined up. And, yet, we believed its ratings would see it through, as it racked up good ones for the Republican National Convention.
But over a longer arc, Fox is increasingly losing its long-held ratings advantage to CNN. CNN has now beaten Fox News in five of the last 11 months in prime-time ratings among the most ad-sought-after 25-to-54 age group, including its win in hyperkinetic July. All cable news has chowed down on the Presidential election feast, but it’s CNN that has gotten the fattest spoils.
Ratings tell one story and brand reputation tells another, especially if it is viewed over time. While Rupert Murdoch was proclaiming that the his wayward ship was steady as she goes, Fox suffered the new indignity of seeing MSNBC’s public perception beating its own.
YouGov’s well-regarded BrandIndex summed up Fox’s toll, in a report issued Wednesday.
“Perception of the Fox News Channel brand continues to be well below its historical levels with Republican consumers, seemingly hampered by the controversial departure of its chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes, the back to back party conventions, and its relationship with its core conservative constituency,” reported the survey firm.
Fox, of course, is all about buzz – that’s the key ingredient in Roger Ailes’ genius channel-building.
And that buzz is heading farther south.
YouGov – a 16-year-old, London-based market research firm with 400 brand and agency clients globally – measures buzz through its BrandIndex product. It now finds that the Fox News’ zippiness has been zapped.
“Even looking at the general population and including all party affiliations, Fox News Channel has had a rocky ride since April 2015, well before the primary debates began,” says the BrandIndex report. In the chart below, we can see the steady general drop in Fox News’ standing.
Fox News Drops in Brand Buzz Over Three Years
How does BrandIndex do its calculations to create a Buzz score?
It asks: “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?” Scores range from 100 to -100 with a zero score equaling a neutral position.
That question – the standard in the BrandIndex methodology – measures not just what people “hear,” but how they process – and recall – it.
Over time, the firm surveys panels of 84,000 adults, 18 years and older, to formulate its trend lines. “YouGov BrandIndex does not have any cable news networks or political entities as clients,” it further notes.
The BrandIndex product tracks 57 U.S. TV networks. Says Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov BrandIndex, “Of the 57 networks, Fox News has the lowest score of the group.” Only slighter higher, CNN and MSNBC; the three news stations collectively own the bottom of brand perception.
That’s a good measure of the collateral damage of all media mistrust extant in the land; now it appears that Fox News has been drawn down into the muck of media mistrust it has sown.
The specific toll among “Republican consumers” makes even more of a statement about the business.
“This past February, Fox News Channel fell to its lowest perception point with Republican-affiliated adults in more than three years after a sudden month-long drop. The bigger picture has shown a slow and steady decline.
“Since hitting that February low mark, perception made some small gains but has struggled to return to its earlier loftier heights: levels are down one third from this past mid-January and by more than half from January 1, 2013.”
On January 1, 2013, Fox News Channel’s Buzz score with Republican-affiliated adults 18 and over was 49, shown in the chart below.
Fox News Brand Buzz Deteriorates with Republican Core Audience
One year ago, shortly before the first GOP debates, the Buzz score was 38. The big drop earlier this year started on Jan. 18th, when the Buzz score fell from 36 down to 14 one month later. The highest the score has come back was 26 at the end of June. Since then, the score has slid back down again to 21.
As we can see its buzz drop among Republicans has been swift. It’s hard to tell how much of that fall is due to Fox’s own work, and the perception of it, and how much it is due to rifts within the Republican party itself that have developed in the Tea Party era.
If buzz tells us something about Fox’s issues, demographics scream more loudly. There are those troublesome 25-54-year-old TV stats.
Fox News’ demographics parallel the trio of 85-year-old Murdoch, 76-year-old Ailes and 70-year-old Trump. Fox News’ average TV viewer is aged 68; leading Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly’s typical viewer is 72.
Then there’s “digital,” everyone’s route forward, especially as multiple digital challenges will change the face of the cable TV business sooner than later.
Fox News even skews significantly older online, as we see in the June 2016 Comscore U.S. multiplatform data below. Thirty-two percent of its digital audience is 55 or older, about 10 percentage points higher than either CNN or MSNBC. Fifty-one percent are 45-plus, 11 points higher than CNN and 6 points higher than MSNBC.
Fox News’ Audience is Oldest in Cable News, 32% 55 and Older
Both the older age viewer and the digital reader demographic issues find reinforcement in that BrandIndex report. It saw a decline in buzz among all age cohorts, including Fox News’ core 50+ audience. While Fox News does enjoy the best buzz among 50+ viewers, within the cable news category, at -2 (CNN comes in at -9 and MSNBC at -7), its under-50 numbers are equally telling. It earns a -12 among those under 50, with CNN showing a -3 and MSNBC a -2.
In short, Fox News mines a niche that appears to be aging out of the market, and perhaps slowly out of the democracy.
Despite public pronouncements, we are coming to believe that the Fox News Channel, driven by business necessity and perhaps political change, will be re-thought and re-engineered, as Rupert – inevitably — turns the channel controls to his sons.
Of course, it’s just one week of numbers, and way too early to assess cause and effect, media and politics, politics and media. Yet, something’s going on here when the Democrats have wrapped themselves gloriously in the flag, and Trump protesters have seized the Constitution as their symbol, much as the Tea Party did so recently.
The wider, and more intriguing question: Are we seeing, in this time of Murdoch–Trump–Ailes adversity, a harbinger of bigger change in our media and politics?