How will cable news thrive without Donald Trump in the White House?
It’s never pretty for a hit TV show when it loses its biggest star.
Cable news networks are about to learn what it feels like when President Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20 to make way for former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump has fueled a five-year run of record ratings and profit for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN that began when Trump first descended the escalators of his eponymous midtown Manhattan tower in June 2015 to announce his candidacy for president.
While the rest of the traditional TV business has spiraled downward as consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions and consumed a bounty of streaming video services, cable news has thrived during the Trump administration. Viewing levels reached an all-time high in October.
Despite Trump’s false allegations of voting fraud and legal challenges in the closely contested states he lost to Biden, the daily narrative is about to shift. When Trump departs the White House in January, so does the daily cacophony and outrage that provided a firehose-like stream of content for cable outlets and the nation of news junkies who watched.
Now, news executives and producers are pondering whether audiences will remain as politically engaged, or if they will once again be dependent on natural disasters, celebrity deaths and true crime sagas to draw viewers as they did in the days before Trump.
“Pre-Trump, I think that the conservative audience had more of a sense of righteous anger and the idea that ‘the only place we’re finding truth is on Fox News,’” said Mark Whitaker, a former top executive at CNN and MSNBC. “Trump has gone a long way to stoking a similar righteous anger on the left. Now whether that will ease under a more calm place Biden administration, we’ll see.”
Although ratings won’t be as strong as 2020, cable news executives expect Trump will be enough of a presence to keep viewers hooked over much of the next year, especially if he runs into legal troubles once he is out of office, or decides to run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Fox News, the cable news leader in large part to its opinion hosts who have been the staunchest media supporters of Trump, is already feeling the impact of the election results, which the president refuses to accept.
The network angered the Trump faithful on election night when it was the first to call the state of Arizona and its 11 electoral votes for Biden. While Fox News is known for giving Trump the benefit of the doubt in its coverage, the network never wavered from its statistically driven projection, even though other outlets did not reach the same conclusion until nine days later while the actual vote margin between the two candidates narrowed.
The Trump campaign expressed its dismay over the call to Fox News brass and Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of its parent firm Fox Corp. The president himself turned on Fox News on social media and directed his followers to smaller conservative news channels — Newsmax and One America News — which he sees as more supportive of his message that the election was stolen from him despite data showing he lost.
In a network viewed by many as a cheerleader for Trump, the polling group has earned a reputation as a nonpartisan and reliable source of polling data
While Fox News has treated Trump’s baseless legal challenges and fraud accusations with more respect than other major networks, its news anchors and correspondents have repeatedly said there is no substantial evidence to back the claims.
The reporting has not gone over well with Trump’s most rabid supporters. The biggest beneficiary has been Newsmax, a fast-growing right-leaning channel in Boca Raton, Fla., and New York with conservative opinion hosts that has resisted calling the election for Biden while the results are being contested.
Newsmax’s most watched personality — former Fox News correspondent and local Fox TV station host Greg Kelly — has told viewers, “It’s not over,” giving Trump followers hope.
Kelly has seen his audience level grow from an October average of 124,000 viewers to 860,000 during the week of Nov. 9 in his 7 p.m. Eastern time slot, according to Nielsen. “Greg Kelly Reports” is chipping into the audience for Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, coming in third place behind CNN and MSNBC for a few days, while still pulling in about 2 million viewers.
Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax founder and majority shareholder of the privately owned network, has been approached by Hicks Equity Partners about acquiring his company, according to the Wall Street Journal. He told The Times he has no plans to sell.
“Our main focus is not to do any business deals right now but to focus on growing the channel and becoming a major player in cable and over-the-top TV news and more news activities beyond that,” Ruddy said.
Fox News declined to comment.
The network remains committed to presenting conservative viewpoints. It has been promoting its conservative opinion hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, with the tagline “Standing Up for What’s Right” in the lower third of its screen throughout the day — a reminder to Trump fans they can count on fiery attacks on liberalism at night. The Fox News opinion shows are still the most-watched programs on cable news on a nightly basis.
But long-running success does invite new competition. Jon Klein, a former CNN president and currently chairman of Tapp TV, which develops over-the-top subscription streaming channels, recalled how the late Roger Ailes, the founding chief executive of Fox News, was concerned that another outlet would attempt to go after the network’s audience.
“When I launched a streaming channel for (2008 Republican vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin, I went to Roger to ask for permission because she was under contract as a contributor to Fox News,” Klein said. “Roger said, ‘It’s fine with me but if you try to launch a cable channel to my right, I’m going to have to kill you.’ He didn’t even laugh when he said it.”
Insiders at Fox News say privately there are no major worries about Newsmax having a long-term impact on its ratings. The belief is once Biden is sworn in as the nation’s 46th president, reality will set in for the dispirited conservative viewers who have helped make Fox News the most watched cable news channel since 2002 by positioning itself as an alternative to mainstream media outlets.
But the pivot to covering the new administration has been tricky. While Fox News opinion hosts have attempted to be sympathetic to Trump’s grievances over the election, other media outlets owned by Murdoch’s company have largely acknowledged that the president’s challenges are folly.
“The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have put out the word that Biden is going to be president,” Whitaker said. “The Journal has cast doubt on Trump contesting the result. Murdoch is trying to send those signals while being lobbied by the president to do more. But the overall corporate message is: ‘We’re not going to be part of a concerted effort to overturn the election.’”
Although Fox News expects its loyal audience to come back, the wild card is whether Trump signs on as a commentator or host at a competing channel, giving it an immediate boost. Newsmax, which is in 59 million cable and satellite homes compared with more than 80 million for Fox News, has given Trump an open invitation to join. (Newsmax also streams for free on over-the-top devices such as Roku, adding significantly to its reach.)
Ruddy is a longtime friend of Trump who belongs to the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., and chats with him regularly. But he has no plans to rebrand his network around him.
“I jokingly said to him, ‘What percentage of the company do I have to give you to come to Newsmax?’” Ruddy said. “I am not looking to create Trump TV. But we’d be happy to have him come on Newsmax regularly or have a weekend show. I can’t ever see him tethered to one media outlet.”
There is also speculation that Trump could mend fences with Murdoch and end up at Fox News as a contributor or host (before declaring himself as a candidate, Trump had a regular spot calling in to “Fox & Friends”).
But don’t expect any other major changes at Fox News. Most of the network’s top anchors are under long-term contracts that run through 2024.
The Wall Street Journal reported that investors are ready to back a streaming TV channel built around Trump — which could be done with less capital than starting or taking over a cable TV channel. But it’s questionable whether that could satisfy the president’s thirst for media attention.
“Donald Trump would make a fortune with a streaming channel,” said Klein. “The key to success in streaming is to have a tribal following. When your audience is connected to one another, they will do the marketing for you. If the guy in the Trump boat next to you at the rally is streaming Trump’s speech, you’re going to sign up for the channel too.”
But Klein said such a venture carries the risk of failure and though streaming has cachet, Trump may still be a traditional media kind of guy.
“Trump is an older person and he might still crave the legitimacy of cable,” Klein said. “ At the end of the day, money is going to talk.”
When it comes to holding an audience with Democratic occupants in the White House, history is on the side of Fox News. The network saw a ratings dip in 2008 during the ascent of Barack Obama and after his election, but the decline did not last long.
Fox News actually had a wider lead over its competitors during the Obama years than it has had under the Trump administration or George W. Bush’s two terms from 2000 to 2008, according to Nielsen data, showing that the network can fare better when railing against a White House administration rather than having to defend it.
CNN, which saw its largest audience in its 40-year history in 2020, is hoping it can hold onto most of its gains. The network did not comment, but privately executives say they believe the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the machinations of a new administration will keep viewers tuned in well into 2021 and avoid the ratings downturn that usually occurs after a presidential election cycle. The network can also step up its use of original documentary-style series, which have delivered solid ratings, if interest in breaking news out of the White House wanes.
CNN is not only bracing for the departure of Trump, but also a determination on the future of its president, Jeff Zucker. The veteran executive —blamed for helping Trump rise to political prominence through the reality TV show “The Apprentice” and now credited with leading CNN’s tough coverage of his administration — has overseen the network’s most profitable period ever, topping $1 billion in recent years.
But Zucker has let staff know he is undecided about remaining in his job after the Jan. 20 inauguration. He is the last division head still in place at WarnerMedia as parent company AT&T has made sweeping leadership changes.
Although Zucker thrives on the adrenaline of live TV news, friends say he knows it will be hard to replicate the success of 2020 and will likely have to implement some of the cost-cutting that AT&T is asking for across all of WarnerMedia.
MSNBC could also see upheaval under NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde, the former Telemundo chief who took over in May.
The future of MSNBC chief leader Phil Griffin will depend on whether the audience sticks with opinion hosts such as Joe Scarborough, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow who all built loyal followings by attacking Trump and the threat they believed he poses to democracy.
MSNBC executives would not comment. But executives say privately that though Trump will soon leave the White House, the issues that divide the nation haven’t changed and they are counting on the audience remaining engaged in that debate.
Trump has taunted his media critics by saying they will miss the ratings he generates when he’s gone.
Whitaker believes there is a larger challenge for TV news organizations going forward as Trump has tested their ability to filter through the misinformation he presented daily as president.
“How do you report the news at a time when just basic facts and verifiable truths are under attack?” Whitaker said. “I think that in the Trump era, the media got a little bit better on how to handle all that. But it’s still clear that it’s something completely new. How do you fact-check in real time without appearing partisan by taking one side or the other? I don’t think that issue for journalism is going to go away.”
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.