Fox News confident in face of new rivals from right in Newsmax, OAN

Fox News is facing new competition for conservative viewers from rivals on the right amid a clash with President Trump as he leaves the White House.

The challenges are unlikely to knock Fox News from its perch as the cable news ratings giant. Fox has spent billions investing in its around-the-clock news division, and its prime-time lineup draws millions of viewers every night.

But fledgling conservative outlets such as Newsmax and One America News see an opportunity to challenge Fox by providing unabashed pro-Trump news and commentary.

Fox is also experiencing pressure from more established rivals CNN and MSNBC, which have both seen their ratings rise with a Democratic administration about to be sworn in.

In the past, Fox has done well in the ratings when Democrats have been in power, but its executives have signaled they are taking the rivals seriously.

“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 OAN,” Fox Corp. CFO Steve Tomsic said at a recent investors conference.

But Tomsic argued that Fox’s upstart rivals have an extremely steep climb ahead.

Fox News had to “burn” $1 billion to make its 24/7 news operation profitable and entrenched, he argued, adding that the network has managed to keep its loyal base of viewers despite high-profile turnover among some of its most well-known personalities in recent years.

“We think we’ve got a business that has stood the test of time, and every time there’s been skepticism about what the future looks like, we’ve pierced through and hit another high,” Tomsic said. “So we feel super confident about Fox News being able to compete in any environment going forward.”

It remains to be seen whether the upstarts will have a lasting impact, but it’s clear that they’ve seen the post-election weeks as a real opportunity — in part because of the president’s actions.

Trump has promoted both Newsmax and OAN as conservative alternatives to Fox, particularly since they’ve run with his unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud that he says cost him the election.

Trump was angered when Fox News called the state of Arizona for President-elect Joe Biden on election night, and he has repeatedly railed against the network for not being sufficiently loyal.

Fox stars such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson have been reliably pro-Trump, but there have been limits. Carlson criticized pro-Trump attorney Sidney Powell for refusing to come on his show to defend her claims of election fraud that have been broadly dismissed by the courts.

Some Washington media insiders have praised Fox’s news division for acting as a bulwark on the right against Trump’s insistence that he won the election — something that has only frustrated the president.

Trump is himself seen as a wild card because of the real chance he could join a Fox rival or launch his own media venture after leaving office.

Newsmax is the larger of the two conservative upstarts, and its ratings have been choppy.

It did achieve a symbolic milestone last week with “Greg Kelly Reports” narrowly beating Fox News’s Martha MacCallum in the key 25-54 age demographic on one night at the 7 p.m. hour.

But MacCallum still pulled more total viewers, and Fox News remains the ratings king, with “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “Hannity,” “The Five” and “The Ingraham Angle” accounting for the four most-watched cable news shows in total viewers in November.

Each pulled between 3.8 million and 5.1 million viewers a night. Fox also has the top four shows in the coveted 25-54 age group.

But Newsmax’s Kelly has become popular on the right for his stridently pro-Trump commentary and optimistic coverage of the president’s longshot legal battles, although he has not yet hit 1 million viewers in a night.

Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, who is friends with Trump, told The Hill he’s looking to capitalize on the buzz by building out a larger organization. At the moment, Newsmax fills out its programming with third-party content, such as Howie Carr’s radio show.

Ruddy believes the polarized news environment, coupled with Newsmax’s growing reputation as the go-to outlet for pro-Trump content, will turn his network into a ratings giant.

“People have become increasingly dissatisfied with Fox and we’ll eventually beat them,” Ruddy said. “We haven’t even launched a prime-time lineup yet.”

Newsmax is currently in about 70 million homes through distribution deals with Comcast and AT&T. Ruddy insists their ratings are higher, as Nielsen does not count data from third-party streamers, such as YouTube.

OAN is not Nielsen rated at the moment, while Newsmax only became rated in late June.

Newsmax has been pitting itself as Trump’s only defense against the mainstream media, with slogans such as “We need more than a fox to guard against the liberal media.”

The network books an impressive number of GOP lawmakers every day. Ruddy has asked Trump to join the network, but the president said he’s focused on overturning the election at the moment.

Ruddy bristles at the notion that his network is giving viewers false hope about Trump’s chances for a second term.

“It’s an uphill battle and we’ve never led our viewers to believe otherwise,” said Ruddy, who spoke to The Hill days before the Supreme Court rejected a challenge from Texas to the electoral results in several states.

“People say we’re pushing conspiracies, but we’re in no way misleading our viewers. Trump has a small chance and we are going to give fair coverage about what’s going on in the states. We’ll accept the president that is elected by the Electoral College,” he said.

Newsmax anchors have given credence to allegations of widespread fraud, and they’re covering the legal challenges as if they have a chance of success — putting them at odds with most legal analysts.

They’ve also attacked Republicans that have broken with Trump over his election fraud claims, accusing Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) of seeking to profit off ties to China.

Newsmax has been criticized for falsely suggesting there was widespread voter fraud that contributed to Trump’s loss and for giving false hope to legions of the president’s supporters.

The critics also argue this coverage has contributed to damaging trust in U.S. elections.

“I think for a group of voters, that trust had already been tampered with, I don’t think Newsmax created that,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “It exists and Newsmax went to where the audience is. Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s going to get filled.”

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” parodied Newsmax over the weekend with a “Sportsmax” channel in which anchors and guests argued that the NFL’s winless New York Jets had actually won some games and were victims of a conspiracy.

There is no indication yet that Fox plans to alter its coverage in light of the new challenges.

Fox’s commentary side remains firmly in Trump’s camp. The president over the weekend sat for an interview with “Fox & Friends,” which is one of his favorite shows.

But straight news anchors such as Chris Wallace have covered the president’s election claims with skepticism and anger. Wallace over the weekend grilled House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.), accusing him of seeking to disenfranchise millions of Americans by joining the Texas lawsuit attempting to throw out the results in four states.

One of Trump’s longtime friends, Fox personality Geraldo Rivera, says the president isn’t speaking to him anymore over election tensions.

“There’s always been tension at Fox between the news division and the commentary,” said Steven Livingston, a media studies professor at George Washington University. “You run into trouble with viewers when you fall out of the propaganda feedback loop, and that’s opened up some space for competitors. We saw this before with Breitbart, so we kind of know where the story goes. They’ll always be looking over their shoulder.”

Since Trump was first elected, Fox has repeatedly faced competition from more stridently right-wing outlets, from Breitbart to Sinclair, but none have meaningfully cut into Fox’s dominance in conservative media.

“This bump by Newsmax, and even OAN, is not a sea change,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Fox still has way more resources and reach than the upstarts. We do live in an age of news consumers seeking confirmation bias, but there is much that goes into news content beyond just telling viewers what they want to hear. This is where Fox can still succeed because they have more resources, more reporters, more paid contributors, more logistical structure than the upstarts.” 

Tags 2020 election Brian Kemp Chris Wallace Donald Trump Fox News Joe Biden Newsmax OAN Sean Hannity Steve Scalise Tucker Carlson

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