The Competing Theories for Fox News's Success

On its 15th birthday, people are taking inventory of its nine years of news ratings dominance

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Love it or hate it, Fox News is a ratings gold mine. With an average of 1.1 million viewers, it commands more eyeballs than CNN and MSNBC combined. (It's been a ratings leaders since 2002.) But how come? It's a nagging question that Fox News President Roger Ailes and News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch were happy to oblige the hosts of Fox and Friends with this morning, which marks the network's 15th birthday. The occasion also invited Fox's detractors to explain its stubborn success. Behold: the competing theories:

Serving the under-served On Fox and Friends, Murdoch suggested that the mainstream media had ignored large swaths of conservative America before Fox came along--a hole he was happy to fill. "Well I just had a hunch, you know, that there was room for another point of view...I don't like monopolies when I see them."

Branding "Fox News has the best marketing slogan in the history of news products," writes Erik Wemple at The Washington Post. Of course, The New York Times's recent executive editor Bill Keller has another superlative for its famous appelation: "I cannot think of a more cynical slogan than 'Fair and Balanced.'" But Wemple documented its power while visiting the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. "Roaming the halls of the event are people from all over the country who are eager to talk in detail about their media-consumption habits. Thanks to the Fox marketing slogan, however, detail is often not necessary." At the event, Wemple talks to a range of conservatives getting an astonishingly similar response each time about why they like Fox News. “It’s pretty fair and balanced,” a woman in her mid-40s tells him. “Fair and balanced,” a 48-year-old tells him. “We appreciate their fair and balanced response," a retired RN tells him. "Fair and balanced. Hence the name ‘fair and balanced,’” a woman tells him. “I do look for that fair and balanced coverage from Fox News,” a 40-year-old man adds. Wemple emphasizes that he never invoked "fair and balanced" to try to get his interviewees to say it. "The proper test of a marketing slogan, after all, is how deeply people keep it in their heads."

Propaganda and smears In a 15-year history of the network, Fox critic Matthew Butler at The Guardian runs down Fox's most gratuitous and outwardly right-wing moments, highlighting a product consistency that keeps a constant narrative for its viewers.

As he had done with Rush Limbaugh earlier in the decade, Roger Ailes's strategy at Fox was to bring conservative talk radio to television. Along the way, the network has built up an incredible track record of smears, bigotry and lies. Fox's bias was clear early on, but the 2000 election was where its true colors began to show. Its polling arm would reportedly ask questions such as "Who would be the most likely to cheat at cards – Bill Clinton or Al Gore?"

Innovation In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Ailes attributed Fox's success to innovation and execution. “I think we do better television than the other guys, and no matter how we do it, they don’t seem to catch up. We seem to out-invent them and think ahead of them, and have better story ideas, better graphics, better on-air talent. We just are better television producers.”

Casting competitors as untrustworthy The Associated Press says Fox "successfully has targeted viewers who believe the other cable-news networks, and maybe the media overall, display a liberal tilt from which Fox News delivers them with unvarnished truth. Preaching its fairer-than-thou gospel, Fox News leveraged the public's distrust for the media while positioning itself as the anti-media news-media alternative."

Loyalty In D.M. Levine's AdWeek retrospective of the network this week, a cable news insider who's worked at both Fox and "competing cable news networks" tells the trade pub it's all about hooking the loyal viewers. “In the case of Fox News, the viewers are completely convinced that it is the one thing that stands between our tenuous grip on democracy and total chaos and dictatorship on the left,” says a source who has worked for both Fox and competing cable news networks. “They feel it’s the only option, the only oracle, the only source of real news.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.