The fringe right-wing cable network finally took the Fox News behemoth down a peg, but how long will it actually last?
After years of cultivating enough fringe clout to take on Fox News, rival conservative network Newsmax TV has finally found some success, eating into the most-viewed outlet’s ratings enough to put a scare in them.
But the question media observers ask heading into the new year: How long can it actually last?
Newsmax toiled in the basement—both in terms of ratings and its amateurish production value—for a decade before gaining mainstream notoriety and hundreds of thousands of new daily viewers after the 2020 election, thanks to its full embrace of MAGA election denialism.
Openly seizing upon outgoing President Donald Trump’s rage towards Fox News—for its early projection of Joe Biden winning Arizona and, a few days later, the White House—and the throngs of disillusioned right-wing media consumers chanting “Fox News sucks!” outside election offices and across social media, Newsmax has made it a point to go all-in on voter-fraud conspiracy theories and “stolen election” claims.
With a beefed-up on-air roster featuring ex-Fox News stars, MAGA castaways, and right-wing hangers-on, Newsmax made a naked appeal to the president and his most loyal fans, declaring it would not project the election for Biden, regardless of reality. (An odd and ultimately performative boast, considering Newsmax does not have a decision news desk that would normally make such calls.)
The strategy paid immediate dividends for Newsmax, as the network, which just months before had struggled to pull 10,000 viewers during some hours, suddenly saw an exponential growth in its viewership. And a good portion of those eyeballs seemed to have migrated over from Fox News.
Comparing pre-election (Sept. 28 to Nov. 1) ratings to those after the election (Nov. 9 to Dec. 17), Newsmax has seen staggering growth across all of its time slots, while Fox News suffered double-digit declines for every weekday show between 6 a.m. and 12 a.m ET. Newsmax’s biggest surge came especially between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., the hours leading into the primetime programming that sustains so much of cable-news programming.
During those early evening slots, Newsmax saw its total audience increase by an astonishing 497 percent, or 502,000 viewers. While both CNN (14 percent) and MSNBC (4 percent) also enjoyed slight post-election viewership bumps, Fox News experienced a decline of 38 percent and 1.3 million total viewers during that span.
Nowhere is the Fox’s ratings leakage more apparent than in its “hard news” hours of 6 to 8 p.m, featuring Special Report with Bret Baier and The Story with Martha MacCallum, respectively. Baier’s program, for instance, lost 39 percent of its audience while Newsmax’s Spicer and Co. gained 667 percent. MacCallum’s show, meanwhile, dropped 44 percent of its viewership after the election while ardent Trump sycophant and ex-Fox host Greg Kelly picked up 486 percent over on Newsmax.
And in a moment that likely set off the most alarms for Fox News, Kelly actually pulled out a head-to-head ratings victory against MacCallum on Dec. 9, outdrawing The Story in the key ad demographic of viewers aged 25-54, with 239,000 Nielsen households compared to her 203,000. In recent weeks, Kelly’s show has regularly pulled in a million total viewers. Prior to the election, he had a tough time drawing even 100,000 total viewers or 10,000 of them in the key demographic.
The daytime hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. have also been leaky for Fox News, which has lost 39 percent of its total viewership in that time, while Newsmax has welcomed a 455-percent increase. CNN, for its part, saw its daytime ratings climb 18 percent while MSNBC remained flat post-election. (CNN has also led in total day ratings, both in overall and demo viewership, since Election Day.)
Newsmax, however, has come a bit back to earth. The network is down 27 percent in total viewers compared to the first two weeks after the election. At the same time, the other networks have also experienced similar drops.
And Fox News ultimately finished 2020 as the top-rated basic cable network with the highest-rated year in cable-news history. But it experienced other late-year trends perhaps worthy of alarm: Fox & Friends, long the early-morning ratings king, lost 35 percent of its viewers post-election while its rival, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, won the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot six weeks in a row.
In other words, using a tortured metaphor: Newsmax cut just enough off Fox News’ legs to put it in danger of occasionally being brought down to the level of its main competitors.
Despite its intense ratings spike, Newsmax’s viewership still only represents a fraction of Fox News’ daily audience, comparing more favorably to business cable channels like CNBC and Fox Business.
And Fox insiders insist that beyond its recent growth, Newsmax doesn’t represent any real threat to the Murdoch empire’s crown jewel.
“Fox will slowly climb back, not to election-year levels, but they almost do better when they are fighting uphill when it’s us against the world, those crazy liberals,” a person familiar with the inner workings of Fox News told The Daily Beast. “I think the whole playing field is going to come down.”
“The election has exposed rifts between the hard right and reality. Trump has 25 or 30 million people who will believe really whatever he says,” one source told The Washington Post in mid-December. “The concern probably is the short term—you could have a brief time where Trump really turns some people against us. Long term, I don’t think these competitors are positioned to really beat Fox.”
During early-December’s UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference, meanwhile, Fox Corporation CFO Steve Tomsic directly addressed the matter of Newsmax’s rising ratings. “We don’t have a hubris bone in our body, so we don’t take lightly the potential for competition, whether it’s the existing sort of classic MSNBC or CNN, or the sort of emerging ones like Newsmax and OANN,” he said, adding the following warning to new competitors: “People take the simplistic view that Fox News is three hours of primetime, Monday through Friday. The service and the actual business is so much broader than that.”
Still, the fact that Fox News has—at least for the time being—fallen back to the levels of CNN and MSNBC hasn’t been lost on management, and has seemingly resulted in a noticeably hard-right and opinion-oriented editorial shift at the network, especially during its supposedly more “straight news” hours.
In mid-November, Fox News announced it would expand the “reporting and analysis” from Tucker Carlson’s top-rated, far-right primetime show to other parts of the network. Since then, the network’s so-called “hard news” shows have featured more segments centered around monologues and opinion commentary not only from Carlson’s program, but the other primetime opinion shows.
Furthermore, especially among the network’s more overtly pro-Trump personalities, there has been a noticeable push to embrace election denialism, lending credence to some of the most outlandish election-fraud conspiracies being peddled by the president and his allies—all despite the network’s news desk reporting such claims to be false.
This has included giving Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and his on-again–off-again crank sidekick Sidney Powell ample airtime to blare unfounded claims about corrupt voting software engineered to steal millions of votes from Trump.
The president, meanwhile, has continued to publicly bash his one-time favorite network, blaming them for his election loss and while celebrating their ratings declines, especially among the daytime hours that he has long believed to be biased against him simply for the crime of reporting the news.