Putting Fox's Ratings In Perspective

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

It's all well and good to take the high road and try to persuade and all of that bla, bla, bla.  However, the *entire* reason FOX has the ratings they do is because they do all of that ranting which appeals to the undereducated and uninformed masses.  The majority of these viewers consistently vote against their best interest simply because they are only able to understand the "us vs. them" mentality that FOX shovels 24/7.  It's all about outrage and it sells (big time!) to that particular demographic.

Imagine, if you will, what would happen if a reasonable percentage of these viewers were converted to the Olbermann form of outrage.  These people probably wouldn't be any better informed (because in the end, they don't want to be) but they could get their outrage "fix" and would end up actually voting in a way that might do them some good in the long run.  As much as the idea turns my stomach, MSNBC or some other entity needs to step up and become a real anti-FOX outlet with many more Olbermann like commentators.  They need to tell the truth but do it using small words in an outraged tone without the current angle of trying to educate that MSNBC seems to have taken.  It would totally be a case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" but we're not going to educate our way out of the current lopsided lean to the right for this demographic because THEY DON'T WANT TO BE educated and the only way to persuade them is via outraged commentary.

Why this reader imagines that Fox News viewers would be converted to MSNBC if they hired more Keith Olbermanns is puzzling to me. I'd imagine that the partisan cable news show audience is particularly unpersuadable.  And let's be clear on the size of the Fox News audience. In 2008, 59,934,814 Americans voted for John McCain. During election week, Fox News as a network averaged 3.54 million viewers. (Perhaps liberals would have more success trying to persuade the other 56,394,814 Republican voters.) That same year, Oprah Winfrey's show – just the one show – averaged 7.3 million voters (reported here as a ratings slump). Yes, among a certain demographic, Fox News is a huge ratings success. So is Rush Limbaugh. But where is the evidence that this rating success has translated into electoral victories or a friendlier policy environment for conservatives? There is none.

Think back to the primaries in 2008 – the contest where the conservative base had the most clout relative to other electoral contests.  Do you remember who won? John McCain. The scourge of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The GOP Senator who has been the subject of more vitriolic talk radio rants than any other.

There is a pervasive belief that entertainment ratings are the same as political influence.

Usually that isn't true.