OFF THE GRID

Why Fox News Is Really Pleasant and Agreeable

Jun 25, 09 | 9:37 AM   byMichael Wolff
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How does Fox News do it? In the face of an incredibly popular Democratic president, a Republican Party and conservative movement in vast disarray, and the natural fall-off for a news network after an intensive election season, Fox News is apparently on track to have its best year ever. WTF?

It’s really kind of a blow-out: Fox averages 2.1 million daily viewers; CNN, 805,000 (CNN Headline News adds another 553,000); and MSNBC, 787,000.

What does this say about political trends—just as, particularly alarming for anti-Fox liberals, the president's numbers are beginning to show weakness—and about the television business?

It may, curiously for both politics and for the Fox business model, say little about politics. Fox actually may be forging a post-political and post-right-wing identify. The argument here would be that political audiences behave in extraordinarily predictable ways, none more predictable than everybody losing interest in politics after elections. An election is a bubble; it’s an artificial high. Deflation is inevitable. If that doesn’t happen, there has to be something else maintaining the focus and passion.

It is possible that what the liberal press isn’t telling us is that among an unheralded and uncounted segment of the country, the president is such anathema that the core opposition has been galvanized in unprecedented ways. Truly, it would have to be that kind of extreme mass revulsion to explain Fox’s numbers.

So what then might it be if it isn’t extreme mass revulsion? The opposite of politics. That is, if the ratings of a network defined as being about politics go up at a time when political interest is down, then the likelihood is not that the network is stirring unique political passions, but that it is offering an alternative to politics.

As it happens, Fox News is no longer really in the category of news networks. Its numbers put it up with USA and TNT among cable networks during prime time.

Let me suggest that by sheer numbers alone, this means that O’Reilly, Hannity, and Beck, while they are thought of as political figures by liberals, and, indeed, who all seem to become ever more belligerent in their anti-Obama positions, are actually thought of as light entertainment by their audiences.

The liberal argument has always been about Fox’s special insidiousness—its calculated right-wing populism infects the nation. But I think it’s worth trying to understand this in purer television terms. If Fox is to grow it has to reach beyond the fixed size of the politically-oriented television audience. It has to do this by becoming a broader, more entertaining spectacle. The more horrifying O’Reilly, Hannity, and Beck become to liberals, the less political and more diverting and escapist they appear to seem to most people out in cable television land.

Which, in a way—albeit a reach—is the good news about Fox’s gob-smacking success.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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