What FOX News REALLY Should Have Learned

I was never invited by anyone to storm the Capital, certainly not on January 6, 2021.

But slightly more than a decade before that, I was forcefully requested by a superior to “napalm Oldsmar”.

Oldsmar, Florida is the Tampa suburb that at the time housed the Nielsen Company.  I worked directly for FX, and tangentially with many of the other cable networks that Rupert Murdoch and FOX controlled.  But because of FOX News chairman Roger Ailes’ personal desire to keep his highly profitable businesses separate from what he saw as both financial drains and ideological counters, FOX News was rarely a group I had direct interactions with.

Yet I was part of several corporate studies, ordered by then-chairman Peter Chernin, to study what the value of the FOX brand was across the entire portfolio.  These studies were conducted as the Bush-Gore election cycle was unfolding, and FOX News’ ascent to the most-viewed source of news in the United States was unfolding.  Many of the FOX owned-and-operated stations were adopting the bold graphic look and overtone that FNC was displaying, in order to better identify themselves as a local arm of a popular network, much as CBS, NBC and ABC stations would work in concert with their network’s newscasts.   Chernin’s team accurately believed that it was impossible for any FOX entity, regardless of how direct the association was, to not be influenced by the perception of FOX News.  In FX’s parochial case, to our surprise, the connection was less significant than many had feared, if for no other reason than the lack of the letter “O” was seen as some sort of “compromise”.  And, fortunately, for the likes of FOX Kids, FOX Family and FOX Sports, those entities were somehow seen as modified enough to stand–or die–ion their own, while FOX and the FOX stations, lacking any such modifier, were more linked to the kind of views and opinions coming forth from Bill O’Reilly and others.

I cite these experiences as why I am far less shocked by the news that was reported earlier this week by the Associated Press’ David Bauder:

A court filing in a lawsuit against Fox News lays bare a panic at the network that it had alienated its viewers and damaged its brand by not lining up with President Donald Trump’s false claims that he had won the 2020 presidential election.

That worry — a real one, judging by Fox’s ratings in the election’s aftermath — played a key role in Fox not setting the record straight about unfounded fraud claims, the network’s accuser contends.

“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” the filing quotes Fox Washington news executive Bill Sammon as saying.

The backlash was noted in internal emails. “Holy cow, our audience is mad at the network,” said one, quoted by Dominion. “They’re FURIOUS,” said another.

Five days after the election, Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch communicated to Suzanne Scott, Fox News CEO, that the channel was “getting creamed by CNN. Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it,” according to court papers.

Fox News tumbled from first to third in the news network ratings between the Nov. 3, 2020 election and Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, according to the Nielsen company. Meanwhile, thousands of Fox viewers flocked to the more conservative Newsmax, where prime-time viewership shot from 58,000 the week before the election to 568,000 the week after.

Now I, like quite a number of other research executives, have been as vociferous about simply not taking as pure gospel what the Nielsen Company reports.  There was not necessarily a direct correlation between the 500,000 viewers that Newsmax gained that FOX News lost–from decades of producing similar studies, I would respectfully offer that least some portion of Newsmax’s gain came from other sources, including people that may never have watched any news at all.  Morever, the fact that Nielsen ratings are based on a panel that reflects a ratio of roughly one metered home for roughly 3000 actual homes, even a loss as seemingly significant as 500,000 viewers was reflective of only a few dozen actual households, and there was not necessarily any qualitative evidence at the time that suggested that those shifts were terminal.

But, as the text chains released by Dominion showed, the top FOX News management and talent saw what they believed to be sufficient qualitative information from the Twitterati to support their concerns regarding ratings–which, as they also revealed, demonstrated a remarkable lack of respect for their audience as a whole, and an unfortunately higher level of respect for Nielsen.  As Bauder further reported:

Almost immediately, the network went on “war footing,” Dominion said, quoting a Fox executive.

“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Fox prime-time star Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer, according to Dominion’s brief. “We’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.”

Dominion contends that Fox executives made the decision to push false narratives to entice their audience back, and points to claims made by Trump allies like attorney Sidney Powell on programs hosted by Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs.  On Nov. 9, Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto cut away from a news conference held by Trump aide Kayleigh McEnaney when she began to air unsubstantiated allegations. A Fox executive complained in the aftermath that Cavuto was damaging the network’s brand.

Clearly, that executive was either not around or too low on the food chain to know what we learned two decades earlier, directly from several carefully curated FOX News viewers, and not from those who feel compelled to voice their outrage on social media, more than likely in the same manner and often in the same location as those that they chose to worship as a “modern day Cyrus” did.

We learned that those viewers did indeed want to hear their own thoughts and ideas represented, much like those who watched other networks that served a particular niche or ideology.  We found several parallels with viewers of Nickeoldeon, MTV and BET–networks we included in the corporate study because, unlike FOX, Viacom had a portfolio of networks that did not embrace the corporate name.  Those brands were strong and unique, and the loyalties were unwavering.  Viacom executives sold both ratings and brand highly successfully.  While they respected and negotiated off of Nielsen, they were never as overreactive as FOX executives were to Nielsen–particularly those that the Dominion texts revealed as the most concerned in the fall of 2020.

When our results were reported to Ailes and other corporate executives, we were informed that Roger was relieved, and was experienced enough with the likes of Rush Limbaugh’s audience to understand that those who express opinions publicly are a subset.  Twitter users have been compared to talk radio callers, and if one listens even today to those show one will hear a similar cacophony of bias as one sees on the platform.  What a shame Ailes wasn’t alive to reassure his successors who were in control in 2020 that their audience wasn’t fully nor accurately represented by tweeters.

And what a tragedy it was that the executives I politely explained my learnings to, ultimately calming them down enough to rescind their request to “napalm Oldsmar” , were no longer their corporate cousins when the amplified reaction and panic, not to mention the cancerous views of what FOX News talent and Murdoch’s suboridinates chose to embrace, resulted in the elevating of the likes of Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell to the national stage, all in the quest of crushing what they believed was a rival that, even at its zenith, delivered a fraction of the audience that FOX News still was delivering.

I never went to Oldsmar.  Frankly, I don’t look very good in the kind of cosplay that paid a tourist visit to Washington on January 6, 2021.  More importantly, I’m aware that “fake news” is sometimes more likely to come from those who report on audience delivery as those who report on elections.
And I kinda wish I had still been around to somehow quietly raise my hand and perhaps attempt to educate some of those overreactive FOX executives that Dominion has exposed, if not to the level of accountability that will cost Mr. Murdoch a billion or so in the courts, but certainly now at the very least will create enough fodder for those who continue to embrace election denial, and call for Congressional investigations when friends of a bathroom tweeter create their own absurdly inaccurate narrative with Nielsen data to somehow try and justify why they should be compensated by a satellite company for delivering a network that is available FOR FREE ONLINE TO FAR MORE HOMES at a level comparable to networks that have not only larger audiences, but also clearer and higher value to their viewers than Newsmax has had, before or since?
Are the likes of Lauren Boebert and Jim Jordan even capable of understanding the level of fake news that THEY are embracing?  Especially that which the Nielsen company is sourced with?
Maybe a great deal of America is surprised by what they learned this week.  I’m not now, and I was less so then.   My networks did respect their audience enough to listen to them objectivelt, and order enough accurate research studies, to put Nielsen data in the appropriate context of “necessary evil”, and not the driver of the kind of behavior that would, ironically, be just as reprehensible as the actions of said modern day Cyrus who simply cannot accept what he considers to be rejection.
I calmed down an executive who sadly reacted similarly, fortunately without the kind of influence that Cyrus, and stooges like Powell, were allowed to express.
I’m hoping that anyone who may read this who may be thinking of another tourist visit to a Washington landmark might take it to heart.
And, by the way, don’t you dare go near Oldsmar, either.  I’ve got too many friends there, and their security is ramped up these days.  And I sure won’t stand in their way if they come after you.
Until next time…

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