On Tuesday, Fox News announced it would be launching Fox Nation, a streaming service populated with original content. While similar to other standalone streaming services that have popped up in recent years, like HBO Now and ESPN Plus, Fox Nation is squarely aimed at the network’s core audience. “Fox Nation is designed to appeal to the Fox superfan,” John Finley, who oversees program development and production for the network, told The New York Times. “These are the folks who watch Fox News every night for hours at a time, the dedicated audience that really wants more of what we have to offer.”
It’s a savvy move, an attempt to both wring more money out of the network’s fans and to offer an alternative as audiences pivot away from cable television. With millions of people cutting the cord or, in the case of millennials, declining to purchase cable in the first place, Fox Nation opens up another revenue stream for the already obscenely profitable network. But while HBO Now marked a sea change in how cable channels delivered shows to viewers, the service basically replicates HBO’s cable offerings. In contrast, Fox News is essentially creating a separate channel with Fox Nation, where its hardcore viewers can get more of the commentary they’ve grown to love.
Fox News’s decision to create a standalone streaming channel is part of a larger media trend. As outlets big and small reel from tectonic forces—Facebook and Google controlling the digital ad market, cord-cutting, cultural fragmentation—media companies are increasingly creating communities for their most devoted and loyal followers. With Fox Nation, Fox News is making clear that it, like many other media outlets, is now a lifestyle brand, mirroring the values of its viewers as opposed to merely informing them of the news.
Despite the fact that it no longer has Barack Obama to kick around anymore, Fox News has managed to remain the most watched cable news network. This feat can be attributed to President Donald Trump, who routinely touts its programs, as well as to the network’s decision to act as a relentless propaganda vehicle. While other networks cover the daily scandals that have gathered like a thundercloud over the White House, Fox News has sold itself as a protective cocoon for conservative viewers.
In Fox News’s hands, the Russia scandal has been transformed into a massive conspiracy engineered by a hostile FBI. Hillary Clinton’s continued existence on planet Earth, meanwhile, is a source of constant outrage. Conservative, pro-Trump viewers can turn on Fox News for a comforting dose of confirmation bias, a place where the president’s myriad controversies are excused when they’re covered at all. Fox News’s commitment to counter-narrative made it the most watched primetime cable news network in 2017, for the sixteenth consecutive year.
Given the long-term loyalty of its viewers, Fox Nation makes a lot of sense. The streaming service is for viewers who “value our product so much, they go to hotels and if they can’t have Fox, they send us emails,” Finley told the Times. “They go on cruises, and if they can’t have Fox, they send us emails.” But the service is also an attempt to lure younger viewers. “The median Fox News viewer is 65 years old, according to Nielsen, but the network points to its website traffic and heavy presence on Facebook and other social media platforms as evidence that a web-only service can appeal to its audience,” the Times reported in its piece on Fox Nation.
Because of the advanced age of its average viewer, Fox is probably less concerned about cord-cutters than other networks. But Fox is also hoping that Fox Nation can serve a similar function as HBO Now—a way to reach sympathetic consumers who don’t have cable. So even as Fox News tries to attract new users, it will do so by rewarding the biases and expectations of its traditional audience.
As a result, Fox Nation will likely have more in common with Fox News’s early morning programming (Fox & Friends, a Trump favorite) and primetime fare (Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity) than in its more news-oriented shows. And Fox Nation will be designed to accompany its viewers wherever they go—Benghazi conspiracies in the car and in the bathroom.
Fox Nation represents a shift in the media economy. For the past several years, digital media companies and legacy publications alike have been focusing on scale—on building products that could reach as many people as possible. But cultivating a small, loyal audience has proven to be more rewarding than trying to build a large one. Many online outlets have found success building platforms or creating services aimed at their most loyal readers. Vox.com has built a series of Facebook groups devoted to discussing the finer points of public policy—and, of course, articles published on Vox. Its embrace of Facebook groups has been touted by both Vox and Facebook as a non-toxic version of the internet, a place for people to come together and have civil discussions about important matters. But it’s also been rewarding for Vox, whose parent company has otherwise stepped back from producing video and other content designed to reach as many Facebook users as possible.
Another example is Slate’s subscription service, Slate Plus, which gives readers access to premium content that’s not available to non-subscribers. A year ago, Slate’s editor-in-chief Julia Turner presciently told Digiday, “Every publisher of smart content is shifting to loyalty.” Loyalty comes in the form of consumers who return to an outlet again and again. But it can take a number of different forms as well, from Facebook groups to cruises to live shows to swag. It’s a more open relationship than most outlets are traditionally used to, with users taking a more participatory role.
The Fox model takes things slightly further, but the principle is the same: Create content that provides your most fervent consumers with a sense of ownership—and be rewarded in turn. The New York Times’s increasingly controversial op-ed page is proof of its devotion to a more wide-angled ethos, and it has angered its core liberal readership. But even the Times has a book club and a wine club and cruise program. (The New Republic also has a wine club.) Even when the day-to-day journalism isn’t affected by outreach programs, every outlet is leaning into its lifestyle brand.
Publishers have tried pivoting to video and scaling up, both of which have failed. It turns out that it was much easier to attract an audience of tens of millions than it was to turn that audience into a meaningful profit. Loyalty, unlike scale, can pay.