Fox News Has Never Faced a Real Conservative TV Rival, But Will That Soon Change?

Victor Kerlow

None of the "amateurish" challengers to the Murdochs' cash-cow TV channel has the resources to compete, leaving a door open for a well-funded conglomerate (say, ViacomCBS) to roll the dice.

Shari Redstone has denied plans to launch a conservative-leaning TV channel to battle Fox News, but the mogul’s Viacom dipped its toe into the space Oct. 15. That day, the company’s Pluto TV free streaming service — which Viacom bought in March for $340 million and has 18 million users — debuted a beta version of channel The First, featuring right-wing talkers Buck Sexton and Jesse Kelly.

Not exactly the name recognition of Fox News’ Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, but The First is set to add three more shows by January when it officially enters a crowded space that includes BlazeTV, Newsmax TV, One America News Network, Daily Wire, Breitbart News and Salem Media Group, all of which are positioning themselves as an alternative to Fox News, which — despite its aging linear audience — makes roughly $1.3 billion a year for its Fox Corp. parent.

For context, Disney’s entire broadcast business, which includes ABC (but not ESPN), makes about what Fox News does each year. The channel is also extremely influential, given that 19 percent of voters in the last presidential election called it their primary news source, ahead of CNN, Facebook, local TV stations, all broadcast networks and every major newspaper, according to Pew Research. And, per SNL Kagan, Fox News also gets $1.65 per TV subscriber compared with 96 cents for CNN and 29 cents for MSNBC.

It raises the question: Why hasn’t another TV conglomerate pulled the trigger on a competitor with wide cable distribution?

The most likely answer: The entry barrier is steep. Fox News spent an estimated $80 million a year on the operation in the early years after its 1996 launch, in addition to paying carriers $11 per subscriber to carry the channel, with 17 million subs at launch.

Also perhaps making studios cautious is the fact that the last big cable news upstart was a massive failure. Al Jazeera America collapsed after buying left-leaning Current TV, which was available in about 40 million homes, in a deal valued at $500 million.

Of course, there's inherent risk in any channel rebrand — a likely route for anyone looking to launch a major Fox News competitor — but not all have been as disastrous as AJA. Discovery found success rebranding its fledgling Discovery Health channel as The Oprah Winfrey Network, and it is planning a similar tactic for DIY Network, which will be taken over next year by Chip and Joanna Gaines, who will rebrand it the “Magnolia Network.”

Another possibility, says analyst Steve Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management: “A lot of publicly traded media companies may want to steer clear of the controversy of trying to do conservative news. I’m not sure there is an opening for more than one politically slanted news network in each ideology: Fox is conservative. MSNBC is liberal."

“Anyone remember National Empowerment Television? Of course not,” says John Pitney, the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “It never found an audience and it folded. Fox News succeeded because of Rupert Murdoch’s money and brand name. He came around at the right time with the right resources.”

Among existing brands, Newsmax, OANN and Blaze have cable and satellite distribution, but they’re not rated by Nielsen, suggesting their audience on television is small. OANN president Charles Herring says Fox News thrives because it serves “often ignored middle America” but that its primetime lineup “has a fundamentally different voice than some day parts,” which Fox News acknowledges by stressing its news is distinct from its opinion shows. Herring says 20 hours per day is straight news at OANN. “We avoid the excessive commentator debates and shouting matches.”

But these would-be Fox rivals don’t have the resources of the Murdoch-run empire. “Fox has been blessed with amateurish competitors,” says Ken LaCorte, the former vp of Fox News Digital who founded digital upstart LaCorte News. “Take Bill O’Reilly on Newsmax TV, where his cheesy background, no makeup and crappy audio make him look like he’s on community access television.” (Counters Newsmax founder Christopher Ruddy, “If people want to be truly informed, they should be checking out what Newsmax has to offer.”)

Arguably, Fox's rivals aren't making up any ground online either. FoxNews.com reached 95.2 million unique visitors in September, per ComScore, far outpacing conservative rivals like The Blaze (5.9 million), Breitbart (5.5 million), The Daily Caller (4.5 million), Daily Wire (3.4 million) and Newsmax (2.6 million). However its largest non-conservative cable rival, CNN, topped Fox with 129 million visitors in the same month.

LaCorte argues "there's a bit of room to the right of Fox. Many people think it's all-Trump TV, but you can see how a few liberal contributors or anti-Trump stories can rile up the president." That's one reason President Donald Trump has tweeted of his love for One America, while Larry Kudlow, the director of Trump's National Economic Council, has praised Newsmax. 

If it were to ever to launch a conservative TV rival, ViacomCBS would have better infrastructure than Newsmax, Blaze and OANN, and the conglomerate could lean on an existing sales team — say, from CBS News — to sell ads on the cable channel; it could also use existing CBS studio space. While ViacomCBS doesn’t have the sway of some larger competitors like NBCUniversal (which is in the early stages of planning a “global news channel” with Sky News), it has some bargaining power and could force distributors to place any potential channel adjacent to Fox News, leverage that OANN and Newsmax don’t have.

Fox News was able to place Fox Business Network near CNBC and/or the main Fox News channel using that same distribution strategy when it launched in 2007. But even a ViacomCBS would find it an uphill battle, to say nothing about less-established entities.

In 2019, "it would be very hard for anybody to replicate Murdoch’s feat,” says Pitney. “It would cost a huge amount of money to acquire the infrastructure and personnel necessary to cover news in a serious way.” And LaCorte opines that the ideal time for a meaningful competitor on TV may have passed. "Fox’s biggest weakness was shortly after it lost Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren. Had a competitor grabbed them and offered Hannity a chest of gold to join them, that would’ve been an immediate threat," he says.

"The median age of the Fox viewer is 65. That’s great if you want to advertise Metamucil, not so hot if you want to prosper in the future," Pitney adds. But the knock against Fox News (and CNN and MSNBC), that its audience demographic skews old, applies to some of its conservative competitors, as well, according to ComScore data, which shows the median age of those who visit FoxNews.com is just under 54 years old, younger than the online audience of Newsmax.com, TheBlaze.com and OANN.com. On cable TV, Fox News boasts 406,000 primetime viewers ages 25-54 compared with 328,000 for CNN and 327,000 for MSNBC. Advertisers don't seem concerned with the Fox News demographic, as the channel recorded record ad revenue in its latest fiscal year.

As for The First, one of 165 licensed partners at Pluto (CNN, BBC, CNN and MGM are others), it’s from Red Seat Ventures, a firm launched in 2015 by founding executives of Glenn Beck’s Blaze. (Other Red Seat initiatives include podcasts, radio shows, websites and video programming from talent like Kirk Cameron.) 

"There hasn’t been a really good platform for fast-growing, conservative outlets — until now," says Red Seat CEO Christopher Balfe. "The next generation of talent, people like Ben Shapiro, are mostly found on YouTube. We’re going after that audience, which is 30 years younger than the audience for cable news."

Alex Weprin contributed reporting. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.