Election night coverage on the cable news networks reached new heights Tuesday.
But Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have to focus on how to keep audiences now that the contentious and expectation-defying 2016 race for the White House is over.
CNN had 13.3 million viewers in prime time to watch the election results, followed by 12.1 million for Fox News – an election night record for both and higher than the broadcast network coverage on NBC (11.2 million), ABC (9.2 million) and CBS (8.1 million). MSNBC scored 5.9 million, its fourth-largest prime time audience in its history.
When the electoral map tipped in favor of a stunning upset victory for Republican nominee Donald Trump, more viewers gravitated to Fox News, which led with 9.77 million viewers to CNN’s 6.45 million from 2 to 3 a.m. Eastern time, a sign that Republican supporters still turn to the channel to root for their team.
Throughout the campaign, audience levels at the news channels were boosted by Trump’s remarkable rise and ultimate victory over his favored Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. But Trump’s first year as a political novice in the White House is also likely to be compelling viewing in 2017.
“I think this is such an unusual situation in that it will raise all boats,” said Andrew Heyward, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab and former CBS News president. “It is unlikely to become something dull and routine and business as usual.”
Although Fox News was at odds with Trump during the Republican primary campaign – he made ugly statements about star anchor Megyn Kelly after facing her tough debate questions – Heyward believes president-elect Trump’s supporters are likely to stick with the channel for its mix of news with conservative commentary.
“Fox News viewers are very loyal and they are attached to the personalities,” Heyward said. “They’ve made it clear there is not going to be a change in editorial direction.”
One certainty that the election provided is that there will be no “Trump TV.” Throughout the campaign there were reports that if Trump lost the election, the former reality TV star would parlay his millions of supporters into a media business that could push his populist viewpoints.
Robert Bluey, vice president of publishing at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and editor-in-chief of its news service the Daily Signal, still believes there is a market for news that skews to the political right of Fox. He noted that there was a segment of conservative viewers who grew frustrated with Fox anchors such as Kelly who were at times critical of Trump’s behavior. “You have conservatives who are somewhat frustrated by Fox News,” he said.
But it would be tough to turn that audience niche into a full-blown competitor to Fox News, which reaches more than 90 million cable and satellite homes and generates well over $1 billion a year in profit.
“Fox News does not have to worry about that,” Heyward said.
Even if Trump lost, the threat of an upstart conservative channel was not high on anyone’s radar at Fox News, according to its veteran Washington anchor Chris Wallace.
“I was always skeptical of that,” said Wallace, who anchors “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s very expensive to launch a news operation. Sure you could do talk TV and have a guy in the studio for an hour spouting off and taking calls. I don’t think that would compete with Fox News.”
Fox News confronted a crisis of leadership this summer when its chairman and ideological driver, Roger Ailes, left the division in June over sexual harassment allegations. Despite the departure, the channel probably secured its place in conservative hearts and minds through prime-time host and ardent Trump supporter Sean Hannity. It was the friendliest media forum for the candidate in the final months of the campaign.(Ailes briefly advised Trump on his debate preparations after leaving Fox.)
“I’m sure there will be those within the Fox News network who will not be able to stomach this,” said Christopher Smith, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “But for the likes of Sean Hannity, it couldn’t be better.… Obviously, this Trump win puts an enormous wind in Fox’s sails.”
But Wallace believes Fox News has also benefited by having its hard news side take the real estate mogul and reality TV star’s presidential run more seriously than other outlets.
“After I had my first interview with Trump in October 2015, I went on the air and said there was a real chance he could get elected president,” said Wallace, who won praise across the political spectrum for his moderating of the third presidential debate. “A lot of my colleagues here in D.C. thought I was nuts. There was no question in my mind he was tapping into something very real and it was a powerful message.”
Fox News was in line with the other networks in recognizing that every major poll showed Clinton ahead by a comfortable margin going into the election.
But when the results came in, Fox News saw its audience grow as the night wore on and the possibility of a Trump victory became apparent.
“One of the reasons I thought our coverage was better than our competitors was we didn’t act like our dog just died,” Wallace said. “Some of the other networks I turned on it seemed like more of a wake.”
Wallace said the relationship Fox News will have with a President Trump depends on how he does in the White House.
“The honest answer is nobody knows because nobody knows what kind of president he’ll be,” Wallace said.
But there has been discussion internally that 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who has moved into Ailes’ former office at Fox News, is looking to make the operation “less of an opinion-page and more of a full-bodied news organization,” according to one executive not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
As for CNN and MSNBC, they could help themselves by taking a deeper look at the economic conditions and trends that made a candidate like Trump possible, said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
“The story here is the story missed – that large portion of the country that has been left behind by urbanization and globalization and technology,” Sesno said. “Everybody needs to stop and ask themselves a lot of questions.”
Times staff writers Ryan Faughnder, David Ng, and Meg James contributed to this report.