Big changes are afoot at Fox News.
Roger Ailes is gone. So is Greta Van Susteren. Megyn Kelly is rumored to possibly be on the move. Gretchen Carlson settled her sexual harassment charges against Ailes for a cool $20 million. And then there's Gabriel Sherman's bombshell report for New York magazine about Ailes' 20-year reign at Fox News. All of this has spawned obsessive speculation about the future of America's No. 1 cable news channel.
Ailes didn't just build a ratings juggernaut. He was responsible for creating a powerful conservative messaging machine that helped provide support for the war in Iraq and fan the flames that gave rise to the Tea Party after the 2008 election. But now, the House that Roger Built appears to be in peril. Many critics claim that Fox News has peaked and faces an inevitable decline
It's not difficult to see why many people believe Fox News faces an uncertain future. While Sherman's allegations have been disputed by both Fox News and Ailes (who is reportedly mulling a lawsuit over Sherman's stories), they paint a picture of a workplace that was hostile to female employees and scarred by Ailes' paranoid management style. And with Ailes' departure, it's unclear whether the good ratings will continue to roll in. Ailes' success at crafting a message and cultivating talent is undeniable.
On top of that, the media is evolving, and cable television subscriptions are declining rapidly. The total number of households subscribing to cable or satellite TV has dropped from approximately 115 million in 2011 to 99 million in 2015, according to Nielsen estimates. And while Fox, CNN, and MSNBC have seen dramatic increases in total viewers this year, in part due to a wider fascination with Donald Trump's unorthodox political campaign, they're almost certainly just riding an election-year ratings wave that is likely to crest on Nov. 9.
Complicating things further: the rampant speculation that Trump is plotting his own conservative media empire to compete with Fox. There's even buzz that he might try to recruit some of the channel's most popular personalities.
Oh, and did I mention that the median age of a Fox News viewer is 68? CNN and MSNBC viewers aren't much younger, clocking in at 59 and 61 respectively, but this detail prompted Derek Thompson to speculate that Fox News's biggest "rival" is not another cable channel but time itself. Thompson argued that younger generations are less likely to be conservative, and also less likely to be cable subscribers, than the current Fox News audience.
But here's the thing: Fox News' future is likely brighter than the naysayers predict.
First off, let's not forget that Fox continues to be the highest-rated cable channel by far. Its audience is larger than CNN and MSNBC combined. And while the average age of a Fox News viewer is 68, this number has changed little over the last decade. It's not as if Fox News viewers are getting older and dying without being replaced by new Fox News viewers. Instead, it may be more accurate to say that Fox has defined a consistent niche with older, largely male audiences that tend to be retired and to watch more television. When many people transition to that phase of their lives, they become new Fox News viewers.
Further, Fox's core audience remains suspicious of Fox's competitors. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center study, a remarkable 87 percent of conservative Republicans stated that they believe the news media to be biased. Fox is where they turn for the "fair and balanced" truth.
More crucially, Fox only needs to maintain a relatively small number of viewers to remain a dominant player in cable news. Unlike the network era, in which Walter Cronkite could command an audience in the tens of millions, Fox can thrive with an audience of three million nightly viewers. Even more crucially, Fox, because of its built-in popularity, is able to command larger carriage fees than most of its competitors. To carry Fox News, cable and satellite TV companies are required to pay an average of $1.41 per subscriber per month. Multiply that by tens of millions of cable TV subscribers. It's a ton of money.
These carriage fees play a major role in subsidizing Fox's bottom line. And they're negotiated years in advance. Barring an epic collapse of pay television, Fox will continue to collect this revenue for years to come. A new competitor for Fox, such as a hypothetical Trump TV, would likely take years to gain a foothold in the cable marketplace.
Of course, Fox News still faces significant challenges. It's competing in a shrinking market. Its older audience is less attractive to advertisers than the younger 25- to 54-year-old viewers who are less likely to subscribe to cable. And there is still the potential that behind-the-scenes turmoil will cripple Fox.
But Fox News also has many built-in advantages that too many critics are ignoring as they dream of the cable channel's downfall. Take a deep breath. Look through clear eyes. Reports of Fox News' impending death have been greatly exaggerated.