In mid-to-late March and early April, Tucker Carlson Tonight was the most-watched cable news show, drawing an average total audience of roughly 3 million viewers each week. It was a rebound from earlier this year when Fox experienced a January slump that was mostly attributed to Trump supporters tuning out after the network became the first network to call Arizona for Joe Biden. At that point, Fox viewership appeared to splinter, with some loyal Fox viewers making the switch to even fringier conservative competitors Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN).
If the new Nielsen ratings hold, Fox may be regaining the ground it appeared to lose for several months following the November elections. Carlson’s new, improved, and overt right-wing bent—dog whistles be damned—seems to be part of that recovery effort. But it also seems like a direction born of desperation as the network tries to reengage disenchanted Trumpers who at least temporarily fled.
Civiqs has been polling viewership of Fox News at the end of every survey for several years now, and while Fox once dominated the conservative airwaves, the outlet doesn’t seem nearly as powerful according to those trend lines. It’s important to note that the Civiqs data is measuring something different than Nielsen, which is an electronic measure of people’s actual behavior. Civiqs, on the other hand, is a measure of self-reporting—how frequently respondents say they are watching Fox News. And in terms of what people say about their viewership, Fox’s star has fallen over the last couple years.
In 2019, for instance, anywhere from roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of Civiqs respondents said they “frequently” watched Fox News. But more recently, increased traction from right-wing competitors like Newsmax and OANN has cannibalized the number of respondents who say they “frequent” Fox News down to single digits.
|March 2019||August 2019|
|I do not watch fox||53%||51%|
More recently, however, Fox’s fortunes have plummeted in this self-reporting metric. In October 2020, prior to the election, 15% of respondents still said they watched Fox frequently, 31% said occasionally, and 54% said never. But following the election, in December 2020, Civiqs also began asking the viewership question about Newsmax and OANN. Here’s the results from the three outlets last December.
|I do not Watch||64%||72%||76%|
The latest Civiqs poll last week showed a continued deflation in Fox viewership consistent with late last year, while viewership of both Newsmax and OANN slipped a bit.
|I DO NOT WATCH||67%||76%||82%|
As a point of comparison, the share of Civiqs respondents who have self-reported watching MSNBC has remained relatively steady over the past couple years. In August 2019, 14% of respondents called themselves frequent viewers of the liberal outlet, 27% said they were occasional viewers, and 59% said they didn’t watch at all. Last week, 13% said they were frequent MSNBC viewers, 23% occasional viewers, and 64% said they don’t watch at all. MSNBC’s modest slip in self-reported engagement is more consistent with an overall dip in engagement many political outlets have likely seen following a frenetic few months, which included the November elections, January Senate runoffs in Georgia, and the horrific Capitol insurrection inspired by Donald Trump.
But overall, the most eye-popping changes in the Civiqs data is Fox slipping from roughly 20% of respondents in 2019 saying they “frequently” watched the outlet to single digits saying the same now. Additionally, Civiqs showed a double-digit increase in respondents who say they don’t watch Fox at all, from low-50s two years ago to mid-60s more recently. Both trends suggest the outlet’s once muscular agenda-setting power on the right has atrophied. Viewed in that context, Fox’s embrace of Carlson’s fire hydrant of vitriol seems more a function of desperation than anything.
In some ways, the Civiqs data raises more questions than it answers: Are people actually watching Fox but saying they’re not? Or if they really used to watch it more frequently but now watch it only occasionally, the question is: Why?
But what we do know is that Fox appears to be reaching out to engage the fringes of the Republican base. If network executives were pleased with their ratings, engagement, and viewership, they wouldn’t be changing a thing. The best way to keep getting results you like is to keep doing the same thing—unless you don’t like the results you’re getting. In January, Fox surely didn’t like the results it was getting.
Finally, Fox’s rightward lunge seems to follow a similar trend among nearly everyone on the political right. Following a several-day window after Jan. 6 when GOP leaders briefly flirted with cutting Trump loose, they have instead embraced him and his grievance politics as the essence of their political being and the key to their futures. In fact, the more Trump recedes from public view, the more Republican lawmakers, news outlets, and pundits are becoming him in order to keep his cultists engaged. In so doing, the real question at hand for Democrats is whether the GOP is expanding its base to include more Trumpers or simply changing the composition of its base to be more Trumpy as it alienates a swath of conservative voters who no longer recognize the Republican Party.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include Fox News’ Nielsen ratings over the past several months. An earlier version of the article focused more specifically on the Civiqs data without a discussion of the Nielsen ratings.