‘His end,’ said I, with dull anger stirring in me, ‘was in every way worthy of his life.’
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Buoyed by an intense and bizarre election cycle, last year Fox News earned well over a billion dollars in profit. It was the most watched cable news network in America by a wide margin, featuring the most popular and influential commentators on TV. Fox is the biggest baddest dinosaur in the media forest, as a comet silently tears across the sky.
While profits piled up, last year Fox News founder Roger Ailes was forced to resign. Sexual harassment allegations that swirled around Ailes for years finally reached their tipping point. Similar controversies finally cost Bill O’Reilly his career this spring. Fox News and O’Reilly had invested well over $10 million to keep O’Reilly’s accusers at bay. It was a bargain, as his show has reportedly generated more than $400 million in ad revenue over its lifespan. Meanwhile Fox’s other major star, Sean Hannity, is still in the “they’re out to get me” stage of the O’Reilly Arc. He’s dug in, denying his sexual harassment allegations and refusing to budge.
Roger Ailes will soon be laid to rest. He will be remembered as one of the most consequential figures of his time. Consequential, in this case, being a funeral euphemism, like Joseph Conrad’s description of Mr. Kurtz as a “remarkable man.” In a ceremony likely to be a Sahara of tears, he will be eulogized for his impact on American political culture, without much comment devoted to the public merits of those achievements.
Fox News will go on, as it has since his resignation last year, but the damage is piling up. As a Presidency Fox spent two decades manufacturing descends into chaos, the network is struggling to invent a compelling narrative. Their talking heads keep regurgitating last year’s Clinton stories, as if a Weekend At Bernie’s strategy might delay a reckoning. 24-hour cable news was never a great idea from a public policy standpoint, but Fox managed to turn it into a dangerous national infection. Their audience, the oldest in cable news, is following Ailes into demographic oblivion. A cliff looms ahead.
A media strategy premised on becoming the favorite newsertainment source for the Last Jim Crow Generation is inching toward its denouement. Dominating TV news is like being the king of the pager industry. There’s money to be made on the long tail, but it’s a business model premised on managed decline. Along the way, they continue to serve as one of the most toxic sources of disinformation and political polarization in our country. For all the talk about the divisive influence of social media, research demonstrates that nothing tops cable news, particularly Fox, as our fountainhead of extreme, irrational partisanship.
What happens to Fox News? ESPN may be a leading indicator. America’s leading sports network is suffering as younger viewers abandon broadcast entertainment and pro-sports faces stiff competition from other pastimes. Fox and the rest of the cable news ecosystem enjoys some insulation from these trends, as their appeal comes from an older demographic, but nothing lasts forever.
America isn’t producing a lot of new Fox viewers. As the country becomes increasingly diverse and a large millennial generation moves into political maturity, the influence of these anachronistic media formats seems destined to finally fade. The bad news is that the Fox News demographic has the highest levels of political participation in our democracy. While their numbers continue to slide and their dominant narratives become ever more difficult to sustain, their outsized influence is likely to linger. Decline, rather than collapse, is the most likely path for Fox News for many years to come. And as the entire genre fades, Fox might enjoy tremendous profits, reigning alone, last to disappear, as competitors blink out of existence around them.
Fox News’ audience is remarkably loyal even as their value to advertisers slides and their raw numbers falter. The only thing likely to weaken Fox News over the next few years is competition from other TV news sources who attempt to adopt more of the Fox model. Those posers will find it tough to replicate Fox’s dark success. Unlike Ailes, Fox News probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.