Were Gretchen Carlson's Fox News Ratings That Bad?

Gretchen Carlson - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Gretchen Carlson - Getty - H 2016

The 'Real Story' host trailed nearly all of FNC's other programming, falling behind CNN in June.

A central thread in the mounting war of words between ousted Fox News Channel anchor Gretchen Carlson and her former employer is the performance of her afternoon show.

Within 24 hours of Carlson filing a sexual harassment suit against FNC chief Rodger Ailes, the exec released a statement pointing to her "disappointingly low ratings" in the decision to not renew her contract — to which Carlson's lawyer Nancy Smith fired back, citing recent growth for her The Real Story telecast.

"The publicly available ratings confirm the allegation in the Complaint that at the time of her termination Gretchen’s total viewership was up 33 percent year to date and up 23 percent in the key demographic," she said Thursday in a statement.

Smith is correct about the growth — though the 33 percent stat in the latest statement is a reference to household ratings, irrelevant to advertisers and different to one in an original claim. And, in 2016, double-digit growth has been the norm. All three of the big cable news networks have benefited a great deal from the presidential campaign. At the halfway point in the year, FNC is enjoying its most-watched year to date. And competitors CNN and MSNBC, typically in respective second and third place to FNC, have surged as well. In the case of The Real Story, which aired weekdays in the 2 p.m. hour, the year-over-year growth is not as large as the competition's.

For the month of June, Carlson's last at the network before her contract was not renewed, Real Story averaged 1.2 million viewers (up 22 percent) — 186,000 of them in the key news demo of adults 25-54 (up 25 percent). Time slot rivals were up by wider margins. CNN even locked up No. 1 status in the key demo, a rare feat it nabbed one other month this past year. Among total viewers, direct competition CNN Newsroom was up 43 percent and MSNBC Live was up 114 percent. In the demo, CNN was on par with Real Story with 26 percent. MSNBC, however, surged 200 percent.

During the second quarter of 2016, Carlson still easily won her time slot among cable news shows — but, with an average 1.15 million viewers and 183,000 adults 25-54, she ranked an admittedly mediocre No. 14 among all FNC programs. The only FNC shows to rank lower, Fox & Friends First and Red Eye, each air before the sun even rises on the East Coast. And the softer lead-in has hurt a much more important program to FNC brass, Shepard Smith Reporting.

Historically, Carlson also has the disadvantage of other hosts doing better in FNC time slots. Ratings rose 20 percent when Elisabeth Hasselbeck replaced her on morning flagship Fox & Friends, and Megyn Kelly's first year in the 2 p.m. time slot performed nearly 40 percent better than Carlson's. A source with knowledge of the 2014 changeover recalls that Kelly's open time slot was one eyed by much network talent when she vacated it for primetime roost The Kelly File.

So, in the broad landscape of cable news, were Carlson's ratings bad? Not really. But, by network standards and during this hotly watched election year, her recent numbers should have been much better.