Why Betting Against Fox News Is Risky for CNN, MSNBC Execs

Heads of rival news networks have prematurely predicted Fox News’ passing in the past

Rival executives have been predicting the downfall of Fox News for years, but the network’s demise has yet to pass. They’re back at it again, but the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal does make things a little different this time around.

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker was featured in a splashy magazine cover story coinciding with Tuesday’s ratings news that CNN won primetime during the month of July among the key demo of adults age 25-54. Zucker is notoriously careful with his words, but his boss … not so much.

Turner Broadcasting CEO John Martin was quoted as saying, “It’s a question of when, not if” CNN will surpass Fox News. Also on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “CNN is getting larger in the rearview mirror of Fox News.”

These predictions have become a tradition since the turn of the century, but they haven’t come to fruition. Back in 2001, then-Turner CEO Jamie Kellner told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that CNN would “be well ahead of Fox” in “six months to a year.” It’s been 15 years and Fox News has finished first in total viewers for 175 straight months.

Ailes, the former Fox News boss, stepped down in disgrace last month after several female Fox News staffers, led by former host Gretchen Carlson, accused him of sexual harassment. Rupert Murdoch is serving as head of the network until a permanent replacement is named, and Fox News has yet to take a hit in the ratings department.

An on-air personality from a rival network told TheWrap that if Fox News does lose viewers who are offended by Ailes, they will probably turn to conservative networks such as Newsmax and One American News, as opposed to CNN and the left-leaning MSNBC. There are no signs of this happening anyway, a point punctuated by Murdoch’s recent memo to his staff, thanking them for another great month.

Zucker was asked when CNN would surpass Fox News back in 2013 and said, “Come back to me in three years. We have miles and miles to go.”

He nailed this one, as it’s been exactly three years and CNN has won the primetime demo in five of the last 11 months, but still has a long way to go in other categories. Fox News Channel dominated primetime in July among total viewers, averaging 2.8 million compared to CNN’s 1.7 million and MSNBC’s 1.3 million. The network is on track to have its highest-rated year ever, and July was the network’s fifth-highest-rated month ever. So CNN’s growth clearly isn’t eating into Fox News’ share of the market — at least, not yet.

CNN did grow 226 percent in the primetime demo compared to last July. But Fox News also grew 77 percent, indicating that extra eyeballs overall are tuning into cable news during the current crazed election year. Zucker is aware of the presidential bump and has plans for 2017.

“Next year we’re going to offer them original series that weren’t part of the equation when large audiences came to CNN in past years like after the election of Barack Obama in 2008,” Zucker told the Times. “We have a whole new swath of programming that will fin.”

MSNBC president Phil Griffin told New Republic in 2013 that his network is “in a knife fight for every viewer” and believed it could surpass Fox News by 2014. Griffin was wrong and MSNBC finished behind both Fox News and CNN in every major ratings category during July.

It remains to be seen whether Ailes’ replacement will tweak programming enough to turn off Fox News’ conservative viewership. But if the last 15 years are any indication, rival execs may want to wait on scripting those eulogies.