By Jason Stverak | Franklin Center
When Fox News unveiled its new prime-time lineup, detractors and competitors undoubtedly grasped at straws to argue that the changes revealed some sort of hidden agenda, but the shift is yet another indication of the network’s staying power.
Despite a lengthy run atop the cable news ratings with no end in sight, FNC’s is resisting complacency and proactively responding to the market to ensure that their network will continue to grow its audience.
The changes at FNC reflect the emergence of a new generation of viewers — the Millennials, who have never known life without cable news and increasingly turn to social media and blogs to stay connected with their world.
Fox News has long dominated among older viewers, who grew up with the traditional 6 o’clock network news and respond well to the network’s trademark style of political commentary, but today’s young adults in their 20s and 30s have different tastes and preferences.
These younger adults represented the only looming problem on the horizon for FNC. Despite leading the Nielsen ratings for the 143rd consecutive month and drawing more viewers than the other three major cable networks combined, the latest figures showed that Fox News’ viewership among 25-54 year olds was slipping.
Instead of reveling in its success among older demographics, Fox decided to aggressively target its lone measurable weakness by moving talented young anchor Megyn Kelly into prime time and poaching the popular Elisabeth Hasselbeck from ABC to reinvigorate its morning program. Both women would seem to have strong appeal to younger audiences and should give the network an opportunity to add new viewers to the fold.
Hasselbeck’s arrival at Fox and Friends weakens rival ABC in the morning time slots while bolstering a new demographic — the heavily female fanbase she built at The View — at FNC. At 36,, Hasselbeck also fits squarely into the demographic Fox News — and all other networks — covet.
This move should also benefit Hasselbeck as much as it does her new employer. Although her 10-year run at The View garnered a national following, the morning talk show was stunting Hasselbeck’s career growth by pigeonholing her as the lone center-right panelist during endless discussions of liberal public interest topics. At FNC, Hasselbeck can thrive in a less hostile environment and branch out into new roles.
The changes in prime time represent a smart reaction to one of their most popular young anchor’s successes. At a time when Fox had been losing younger viewers, Kelly was gaining them, even in her middle-of-the-workday 1 p.m. timeslot. Now, Kelly’s program will air in the key 9 p.m. slot, when far more young adults are at home watching TV.
It’s no coincidence that Kelly’s new slot coincides with the peak hour of social media usage. FNC plans to aggressively incorporate Kelly’s social media acumen into her new program to draw younger viewers’ eyes back to the television from their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Kelly’s move to prime time also places FNC on the cutting edge of another emerging trend: the revival of investigative journalism.
While one of Fox’s competitors is cutting its investigative department, and the other is delivering only a third of FNC’s news content, Kelly’s new show will refreshingly focus on “in-depth investigative reports interspersed with newsmaker interviews.” This renewed focus on investigative reporting over commentary and human interest shows that Fox is confident in its standing and striving to make its content even better.
The other changes to FNC’s prime-time lineup reflect a similar confidence in the network’s news operations.
Greta Van Susteren, whose program is more news-oriented than others in the lineup, will move from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m., placing her closer to the events of the day and better equipping her to deliver news as it occurs.
Likewise, Sean Hannity’s popular commentary program will move to 10 p.m., giving his viewers more time to digest stories before hearing his take, and Shepard Smith’s new role as breaking news editor gives the network an experienced reporter on hand throughout prime time to update viewers on stories as they develop.
In another display of confidence, Fox News made no changes to the three most popular programs in its evening lineup — The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, and The O’Reilly Factor, each of which routinely draws as many viewers as its three closest competitors combined. With a trio of established bedrocks anchoring the lineup, the network can afford to take the edgy risk of introducing Kelly to prime time.
Fox News has grown from a lonely cable outpost to the 800-pound gorilla of TV news in just 17 years by taking measured risks, constantly adapting to the changing market and giving its viewers the content they want to see. The changes to the prime-time lineup continue in this tradition and the network’s era of dominance will continue to roll along with no end in sight.
Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.