Fox News’ situation is reminiscent of another television behemoth. Several years ago, ESPN enjoyed a similar dominion in the cable kingdom, as the self-anointed worldwide leader in sports. Just as there is no remotely equal challenger to Fox News on cable, there had been no real rival for ESPN in cable sports.
But today, ESPN is the victim of a broader turn away from pay TV. After peaking in 2011, the number of households that pay for ESPN declined from 100 million to about 92 million in 2015, as younger families cut the cord, or bought cable bundles without ESPN, or never got pay TV in the first place. (For any product to receive $8 a month from 90 million households, as ESPN does today, is a remarkable achievement; however, in business, as in sports and politics, all narratives are present-biased, and the trend line has not been kind to ESPN.)
The lesson to take from the worldwide leader’s slip is that star broadcasters, brilliant programming, and sparkling production value are nothing compared to the sheer force of demographics and the evolution of media technology. ESPN is the leading broadcaster of live sports, which are valuable for distributing live advertising, and so the network became the most expensive channel for cable companies to carry. ESPN’s high price used to be a badge of honor, but in the age of cord-cutting, it’s an albatross. Carriers have been eager to offer slimmer packages that don’t include the worldwide leader. Meanwhile, the demographic most likely to become new ESPN devotees—young men—are part of a generation that is significantly less interested in pay TV in the first place.
Turning to Fox News, many of these patterns are reappearing. Like ESPN, Fox News presides over a small monopoly on a certain demographic—not of young male sports viewers, but of older male conservatives. Fox News sometimes seems to lear above the political landscape like an ominous village volcano. But in the larger picture, the channel's presence is best described as a medium-sized hill: The network averages about 2 million viewers each week, and Bill O’Reilly’s show fetches a bit more than 3 million. "Well, that's a lot more than you," a Fox News personality might retort when confronted with such accusation, and indeed, it is a lot more than me. But in an election with more than 120 million projected voters, it’s really not so many.
Fox News is “mainstream" only by the modern and severely diluted definition of the term; Walter Cronkite once pulled audiences in the tens of millions. By any reasonable calculation, Fox News is niche. And its niche is old white men. Cable news is a gerontocratic kingdom where Fox News serves as king. The median age of Americans watching CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News is over 60. Half of Fox News viewers are over the age of 68.
Television is particularly popular among men, people who didn’t go to college, and people over the age of 70, which is a great description of a predictable conservative. (Retired seniors watch more than 50 hours of television a week.) Indeed, this older male group is not only ready-made for cable-television-viewing; it comes prepackaged with extremely conservative views. Over the last three general-election cycles, the 65-and-up group voted for the GOP presidential candidate by an average of 9 percentage points.