By Lucas Shaw
NEW YORK (TheWrap.com) – Friday marked the 15th anniversary of the Fox News Channel, and after 10 years as the most-watched network in cable news, what’s left to conquer?
Having beat the original cable news channel, CNN, at its bread and butter of breaking news, Roger Ailes and his boys are going after Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams and Scott Pelley.
“To be honest, we’re looking up to try to get to CBS or one of the networks at 6:30 during my timeslot,” Bret Baier, host of Fox’s Special Report, told TheWrap.
And, he insists, it’s not just a pipe dream: “For the midterm election in 2010, the coverage we had led all the networks, networks and cable news channels,” he added.
Of course, toppling the broadcast networks will not happen immediately — nor is it likely in terms of mainstream prestige.
But in terms of ratings, this remains a very real goal for the network, and one that even those outside of Fox think is possible.
Last quarter the network newscasts still ranged from 5.5 to 8 million nightly viewers, with newsmagazines like ABC’s “20/20″ and “Dateline NBC” a rung below that.
On Fox, Bill O’Reilly leads the pack, averaging almost 2.9 million viewers in the last quarter, with Sean Hannity second at two million and Baier third at just shy of 1.9 million.
“There are moments where, if you add it up the right way, cable news stations in general rival the networks for certain momentous events, (such as) during conventions,” said Michael X. Delli Carpini, the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
“The distinction between the networks and cable is increasingly going away,” Delli Carpini said. “For a lot of people who are younger, who grew up with these hundred cable stations, the idea that something is a network and not a network doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
Read between the lines: the gap is narrowing.
But how can a CBS, NBC or ABC, with their larger audiences and storied histories, possibly be at risk of drawing fewer viewers than Fox? By underestimating the network.
That’s the mistake CNN made after Ailes launched Fox in 1996.
“Nothing in my experience with them, beginning in 2001, suggested to me that they understood the threat that Fox presented to their franchise,” Aaron Brown, a former ABC and CNN host who is now a professor at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism, told TheWrap. “The attitude at CNN… was very dismissive,” he added.
As ESPN has demonstrated, a cable organization with a good business plan, a strong brand and a massive war chest can rival any of the major networks.
And some observers think that MSNBC, which recast itself as a progressive counterweight to Fox a couple of years ago, has similar potential. MSNBC, though, still lacks one show that pulls in the ratings that as many as 10 different Fox shows draw in any given month.
Fox became the first cable news network to beat a broadcast network for its ratings during the Republican National Convention in 2004. It did the same with the 2008 convention for three straight nights.
Its vice-presidential debate in 2008 garnered more than 11 million viewers — the highest-rated telecast in network history — and its coverage of the 2010 midterms drew almost 7 million viewers.
What makes Fox’s rise so remarkable is that it has done so in spite of a near constant assault from its critics.
Attacked regularly by the likes of “The Daily Show‘s” popular Jon Stewart, it has been called everything from biased to dishonest, deceitful to malevolent. It even stands accused of being an overt political organization.
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“I can’t think of a time when it wasn’t a political organization,” Brown said. “It launched as a political organization.”
The fact that many of those ratings highs come during Republican events doesn’t help its case — though Fox has grown accustomed to such criticism. It refutes those claims, insisting it doesn’t have a company-wide political agenda, and its primetime programs and news programs are separate and distinct.
Michael Clemente, senior vice president of the news department, has likened the network to a newspaper in that there is a division between the news and opinion sections.
“It actually works quite well as a model even with this saturation of information,” Clemente told TheWrap. “You read the news and then see what people are yakking about in opinion.”
“If you watch ‘Fox & Friends,’ you are waking up to find out what happened overnight. Most people start with ‘What’s the weather,’ ‘Oh-Awlaki was killed.’ Most people by night, if you don’t know anything, you’d have to be a horse with blinders on.”
Indeed, the news anchors like Baier have always insisted that the opinionated nature of Fox’s primetime shows has never impacted their credibility. Whether that is true, it certainly has not affected their ratings.
That is one secret to Fox’s success. With Glenn Beck as the prime example of the ratings fed by extremist rants, Fox hosts can say almost anything and the ratings go up, not down.
And when that ceases to be the case, Fox eases the ranter out, as it did with Beck.
A large part of that, Brown says, is branding.
“Roger looked at the opposition and said, rather than allow them to define themselves, let us define them for the audience,” Brown told TheWrap.
While Fox would credit itself for its entertaining programing — Bill Shine, senior vice president of programing, said Fox brought fun to the news — it does not see all its programing as opinion-based.
“You look at Brett, Shepard, Jon Scott, Bill Hemmer, Jenna Lee, those are rock-solid journalists,” Shine said.
But clearly that’s not what defines the network’s success.
“If someone were to ask me to say something nice about Roger Ailes, (I’d say) he is clearly one of most talented TV producers of the modern era,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of Media Matters.