With all the unfair and unbalanced shilling Fox News does for Donald Trump, it may come as a surprise that Rupert Murdoch may actually be rooting for Joe Biden. The Washington Post recently reported that Murdoch believes Trump’s criminal handling of the pandemic has handed the White House to Biden, yet the Fox News overlord is almost certainly sanguine about the impending electoral loss of his gold-plated cash cow.
Fox News, which has been making billions of dollars positioning itself as state TV for the Trump regime, likely stands to make even more if Biden is victorious. First of all, partisanship is profitable. But rewinding modern media history also teaches us that in TV news, a hyper-partisan programming perspective, whether right or left, is even more profitable in opposition to the powers-that-be than when it’s aligned with those in charge. It was during the Clinton years, featuring, among other things, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and ensuing impeachment, that Fox News first came to dominate its rivals CNN and MSNBC. Ever since, Fox News has continued to utterly dominate its rivals in both ratings and profitability.
The lesson has not been lost on CNN and MSNBC. Watching either of them any random night the last four years would demonstrate how they’ve played the role of opponent to the throne. Since he descended the escalator at Trump Tower to call Mexicans rapists and announce his 2016 presidential bid, The Donald has been ratings gold for both CNN and MSNBC.
News chiefs receive minute-by-minute ratings reports, and thus have a very good idea about what keeps people glued to the tube. Clearly, going wall-to-wall Trump caused numbers to spike and that’s what drives advertising dollars. In 2015, CNN president Jeff Zucker called Trump’s presidential run a “sideshow.” Still, the network breathlessly promoted MAGA rallies as main events, while chyrons teased countdowns to action–like rallies–that it typically covered in its entirety. The potential for corporate balance sheet surges apparently outweighed concerns for the nation’s welfare, as well as more balanced journalistic practice. The result? Trump received hundreds of millions of dollars in free media during the 2016 campaign, gilding the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for four terrifying years.
Two years into the Trump regime, in a 2018 Vanity Fair interview with Joe Pompeo, Zucker candidly explained why the Trump presidency continued to suck up his network’s primetime oxygen, admitting that anytime CNN veered away from “the Trump story,” “the audience goes away.”
MSNBC also both got the memo, and appalled and obsessive Trump coverage became the ultimate go-to for their winning playbooks:
“Does today’s news suggest the Mueller Report will lead to impeachment?”
“What a news day! Look at what Barr did!”
“Will he be impeached?”
“Lots to talk about tonight! What has our country come to?”
“Today in the Covid disaster–the administration’s awful failures.”
“This election is for the soul of our nation. Vote!”
The networks’ respective primetime troikas—CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell—have been bringing in record audiences and the bucks that flow with it throughout Trump’s reign. Both networks are serious profit centers for their parent companies AT&T and Comcast, respectively. This October, in the 25-54 demographic that advertisers most crave, CNN’s primetime was up 116% and MSNBC’s 45%. Although the economic downturn in the wake of the pandemic has put a damper on revenue, industry forecasts estimate that CNN will have ad revenues for 2020 north of $800 million, and MSNBC’s will top $700 million—significantly higher than what each garnered in 2016.
A recent Wall Street Journal piece asked whether Jeff Zucker has a future atop CNN. It’s just the latest tale of corporate intrigue and unrest since AT&T completed its acquisition of the news network’s parent Warner Media in June of 2018. Last April AT&T installed Hulu’s founding CEO Jason Kilar to head WarnerMedia, passing over Zucker. A restructuring ensued, and the CNN chief, despite his division’s good earnings, saw parts of his turf taken away. The CNN boss has told co-workers that if he departs, it won’t be until after the election. What’s not said is that this would come with his capital at a high point, before a likely hit to CNN profits in 2021 if Biden wins. (Zucker’s fortunes have been tied to Trump since the CNN chief ran NBC. In his frantic search to revive that network’s fortunes, he put The Apprentice on the air.)
Should the Biden/Harris ticket prevail, the nation may emerge stronger, yet I doubt that ratings and revenues at CNN and MSNBC will follow suit. With Trump vanquished, Maddow, Cuomo et al are likely to see large chunks of their audience moving on to the next iterations of things like The Bachelor or Keeping Up with the Kardashians (and primarily not to see how Kanye’s presidential run turned out).
And in the more nightmarish scenario–for me at least–that Trump gets four more years, there’s already evidence he’s no longer such boffo box-office. We will know more by the time the last vote is counted, but there are signs that increasing numbers of viewers are bored with The Trump Presidency Show. Like any surprise hit series that millions can’t get enough of, after time the format inevitably fades and the audience moves on to the next big thing. Note the bigger ratings Biden drew when he and Trump faced off last month in competing televised town halls, as well as how both CNN and MSNBC have backed off from their practice back in the days of airing huge chunks of the President’s rallies uninterrupted.
At Fox News, The Donald’s megaphone is still a MAGA-hit for the true believers. The revenue picture should remain rosy, given its record ratings in October, with primetime leaping 139% among the 25-54 crowd over last year. It’s likely the network will bring in about $1.3 billion in ad revenue this year, despite intermittent advertiser boycotts of some of its highest-rated shows, including top hit Tucker Carlson Tonight, starring America’s favorite bow-tied white nationalist.
Murdoch and the Fox News gang have made hundreds of millions of dollars off The Trump Presidency Show. If voters kick The Donald to the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue, he could quite possibly get his own Fox News primetime slot. Whether he does or not, it’s a solid bet that as the network on the other side of the aisle to a Biden administration, Fox News will be printing even more money in 2021. [Trigger Warning!] Let’s just call that the start of the war chest for when Tucker Carlson pronounces himself 2024’s Great White Hope.
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