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Fox News Is in Trouble

The network is facing real, sustained competition from the right for the first time in its history.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Asked during an Election Day earnings call about the prospect of a Donald Trump–branded television network, Fox News CEO Lachlan Murdoch was sanguine. “We love competition,” he said. “We have always thrived on competition.” Having consistently bested its cable news rivals, Fox was competing with the networks as well. “I will say the only difference today versus some years ago, as our audience has grown and our reach has grown, we see our competition as no longer only cable news providers, but also as the traditional broadcast networks,” Murdoch continued.

Fox News’s top brass had reason to be confident. They believed the election was a win-win. If Trump won, their gravy train would continue. If he lost, they would lead the resistance to Joe Biden, just as they had to Barack Obama. Regardless of the outcome, viewers—and money—would flood in.

Since then, practically nothing has gone according to plan. By calling Arizona for Biden earlier than other networks, Fox became a scapegoat for the Trump campaign. The definitive chant of pro-Trump protesters over the last month isn’t “Stop the Steal” but “Fox News sucks.” Fox News thought it was leading the revolution, but now it’s being eaten by it. Newsmax and One America News Network, Fox’s biggest postelection competitors, are seeing their audiences grow at a rapid clip—and seem poised to hold on to them even after Trump’s pathetic efforts to undo the 2020 election end.

Newsmax and OANN do not have large budgets or big stars (though the former has hired a number of cable news castoffs, including several former Fox employees and grade-obsessed android Mark Halperin, who had previously been exiled after being fired from NBC News for admitting to several instances of sexual harassment). Their production values are low. There is little of Fox’s glitz or polish or, yes, professionalism. (Fox has often acted as Trump’s state television, but it does take the job very seriously.)

Newsmax and OANN do have two factors in their favor, however. One is a willingness to go wherever the president asks, without caveats. Both networks have doused their viewers with a fire hose of lies about the 2020 election: that dead people voted, that millions of votes were changed, that Hugo Chávez engineered a massive conspiracy to deny Trump the election (despite dying seven years earlier). They are then rewarded with a virtuous cycle familiar to those who followed Fox during the Trump era: The president promotes the garbage he sees to his millions of obsessive fans, who then tune in, leading to ratings and money.

The other, related factor is a total lack of journalistic ambition or credibility. Trump has maintained a decent enough relationship with Fox’s prime-time hosts, who have followed him, albeit with less gusto than some of their peers, into the fever swamps. His beef is with Fox’s journalists, who follow basic journalistic practices, like acknowledging that Joe Biden is the president-elect. Newsmax and OANN don’t have anyone making a play for anything resembling journalistic credibility, and Trump voters can tune in to those networks without ever hearing the truth about the 2020 election. They are 24/7 fact-free zones. They have supplanted Fox News as Trump supporters’ preferred safe space.

During the post-Arizona backlash, Fox News executives may have hoped that they could wait out the storm—that, soon enough, their viewers would move on from the disappointment of the election. Then Fox could dust off its Obama playbook, magnifying minor scandals at every turn, while continuing to warn against creeping socialism and anarchy spreading in American cities. But the president hasn’t moved on, and he has turned supporting his attacks on American democracy into his latest loyalty test. Newsmax and OANN are passing. Fox News is a distant third.

There are signs that these networks are in a strong position to continue challenging Fox News after Joe Biden ascends to the presidency. On Monday evening, Newsmax boasted a larger audience than Fox News for the first time, when its Greg Kelly Presents narrowly beat Fox News’s The Story With Martha MacCallum with 25-to-54-year-olds, the most important demographic for advertisers. The margin was narrow—Kelly averaged 229,000 viewers in the demo, and MacCallum averaged 203,000—but CNN’s Brian Stelter called it a “milestone in the cable news industry.”

(OANN’s audience isn’t measured by Nielsen Ratings, making it difficult to assess its postelection impact.)

A survey released on Tuesday by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found a similar uptick, showing that the number of Americans who listed Newsmax and OANN in their top-three news sources had shot up after the election. “In the same survey in July 2019, precisely zero (not just zero percent) of the respondents cited Newsmax; in the latest survey, conducted shortly after the 2020 election, 7 percent named Newsmax,” wrote The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake. “That’s greater than the Associated Press (5 percent) and nearly on par with The Washington Post (8 percent) and CBS News (8 percent).”

It’s not yet clear whether the ongoing assault from Newsmax and OANN will lower Fox News’s audience in the long term. What is evident, however, is that neither network is fading. For the first time in its history, Fox is facing serious competition from its right flank.