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“You’re seeing the end of the Fox News Channel,” Glenn Beck told his radio and TV audience earlier this year, after Megyn Kelly left for NBC, Bill O’Reilly was about to be fired, and leadership was in flux after the ouster of chief Roger Ailes. “It’s not going to go right away, but you’re seeing a significant weakening,” the former Fox host predicted.
Indeed, many conservative media insiders see an opening to take on the still-dominant channel. In a tumultuous political climate, they’re hoping to steal away a significant portion of viewers, some of whom see changes at Fox News as an abandonment of its roots as a network friendlier to right-of-center audiences than other TV news outlets.
Among the challengers: Beck’s The Blaze, Newsmax TV, One America News Network, Sinclair Broadcast Group, CRTV and Breitbart News.
Plus, executives at Sinclair Broadcasting can’t seem to dispel the rumor (though they’ve tried) that they also may launch a Fox News competitor. Progressives certainly seem to think it could happen, basing their presumptions on the political leanings of top executives who urge Sinclair-owned stations to air “must-run” editorial content, some of which is conservative opinion.
That’s why Sinclair recently has become a favorite target of Media Matters for America. The progressive nonprofit media watchdog is advancing the narrative that Sinclair is hiding its conservatism, for now, because it does not want to spook regulators who could put the kibosh on its pending $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media.
“The pushback that Sinclair is getting is well founded,” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone wrote on July 18 after Politico published an internal Sinclair memo defending its must-run content. “The company advances its politics by exploiting the trust and confidence that the public still has in local news in order to poison the information landscape with bias and pro-Trump propaganda,” Carusone wrote.
Whether or not Sinclair decides to challenge FNC, others already are. Beck, for one, has been hosting Bill O’Reilly on his show fairly regularly and there’s speculation he could sign on with a show of his own. Jonathan Schreiber, president of Blaze parent Mercury Radio Arts, acknowledges that programming changes are coming in September, though he’s not specific beyond saying The Blaze will still offer eight hours of original programming daily.
The Blaze is best known for its $9.99-a-month OTT digital service, but it’s also in 18 million homes on 100 cable and satellite services, the biggest being Dish Network and Verizon FiOS.
“There’s no Pepsi to FNC’s Coke yet, even though their Coke hasn’t been at its best lately,” says Schreiber. “But we don’t consider ourselves a competitor to Fox because we don’t pretend to be ‘news.’ What we do is give opinion based on unimpeachable facts.”
He adds: “There’s not even a question there’s room for more. Half the country is conservative.”
Fox News maintains it is not a conservative network when it comes to delivering news, just that it has conservative commentators, such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. And while there was chatter after Roger Ailes’ ouster last July that the network could take a more moderate tack due to influence from network founder Rupert Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan, shows like Fox and Friends and Hannity have become reliable venues to hear Trump administration voices.
While FNC’s demo has dropped from an average age of 67 to 65 lately, it regularly beats MSNBC and CNN in the key 25-54 demo. In July, it topped all of cable for the 13th consecutive month in total day, delivering 1.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It boasts 89.9 million subs and gets $1.41/month for each of them, according to SNL Kagan, which estimates FNC will clear $1.8 billion in cash flow this year. Those are numbers that make wannabe competitors drool.
“As long as Trump remains popular with the GOP base, it is hard to see how another conservative network could displace Fox,” says John Pitney, the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If Trump’s conservative support should wane, however, there could be an opening. Fox has identified with Trump, and his downfall could hurt the brand.”
Another upstart operation is CRTV, a $99-a-year online network featuring shows hosted by conservative personalities Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin and others, though so far it has no plans to transition to traditional TV. “Sometimes our shows are 15 minutes, sometimes they’re longer. That’s the joy of digital: There’s no TV clock,” says vp Gaston Mooney. “Activists went after Fox’s advertisers, but we don’t have to worry about that. When Mark says something the professional left objects to, they can’t boycott him.”
He adds: “One America and Newsmax TV spent God knows how much money getting on cable, whereas we spend our money on content.”
Analyst Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research also sees an opening for a competitor to seriously take on FNC, but it will be difficult. “There’s an explosion in news-related programming so there’s significant interest in finding a way into the space that FNC inhabits,” he says. “And the more partisan the programming, the more your ratings grow.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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