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The Year in Cable News: Fox News Ends Another Contentious Year at the Top

In a year of major news stories – the Boston Marathon bombing, NSA leaks, the government shutdown – the story behind the story has never been more important. TheWrap takes a look at the networks that brought you these stories 24 hours a day for the past 365 days, their highs and lows, and what you can expect from them in the new year.

First in TheWrap’s year-end cable news series

Two narratives dominate media reporting about Fox News. The first focuses on the indisputable fact that Fox is a success. The network is poised to finish 2013 at the top of cable news rankings by a wide margin, as it has done for 12 consecutive years (see charts below).

It also ends the year as the fourth most watched network in all of basic cable, and the sixth most watched in primetime. Neither CNN nor MSNBC ranked in the top 25 in either category.

Also Read: Cable News Ratings for Third Quarter 2013: No Surprises

The network could have been content with that success, but ratings began to soften late last year, particularly in the tried-and-true primetime lineup that had consisted of “The O’Reilly Factor” at 8pm ET, followed by “Hannity” (& Colmes until Jan. 2009), and “On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteren.”

So Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes decided to blow up the schedule, moving Greta up to 7pm and Hannity back to 10 to make room for Megyn Kelly, who made her primetime debut with “The Kelly File” on Oct. 7.

“Roger wanted to change the way Americans got their news,” Bill Shine, executive vice president of programming for Fox News Channel, told TheWrap in a phone interview.

Also Read: Fox News Shuffles Primetime Lineup: Megyn Kelly’s Show Gets 9 p.m. Timeslot

“The idea of the traditional newscast was dying; the numbers for broadcast networks’ nightly news – they haven’t gone up for 15 years.”

Most of the focus has been on primetime changes, but Ailes also shuffled dayside. The opportunity to hire Elisabeth Hasselbeck presented itself, Shine said, so bringing her aboard to co-host morning show “Fox & Friends” allowed Fox to give Gretchen Carlson her own hour.

The biggest change on the news side was promoting veteran Shepard Smith to managing editor and head of the new multi-platform breaking news division. The primetime shakeup meant Smith lost his second live hour at 7pm.

Also Read: How Shepard Smith and the Fox News Deck Covered the LAX Shooting

The second narrative centers around the many controversies that erupt from the network on a regular basis. Organizations like Media Matters – which in 2011 declared a “war on Fox” – exist almost exclusively to track, challenge, and attempt to discredit Fox News reporting.

Some of the most-read stories on TheWrap last week were about primetime host Kelly’s assertion that both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ are indisputably white — a claim that offended many. She later said she was kidding, but not before network news rivals and late-night shows took her to task.

Also Read: Megyn Kelly Says Her ‘White Santa’ Critics Are Race-Baiting

Such stories routinely threaten to discredit the company’s claim to being “Fair and Balanced.” Days before she opined about Santa’s race, Kelly told Jay Leno, “I’m a straight news anchor; I’m not one of the opinion hosts.”

But the debates have never hurt Fox in the ratings. They may even help. Here is where the narratives intersect.

Shine told TheWrap that competitors and critics alike do whatever they can to try to push Fox from the top of the ladder.

Also Read: Fox News Boosted by Iran Nuclear Deal Coverage

“When you win, when you have a lot of success, it scares people,” he said.

“You’re taking viewers from their channels, you’re making money – in terms of ad dollars,” so competitors like CNN and MSNBC have no choice but to fire shots across the bow.

Shine dismisses the regular barbs the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” throw at the channel.

“For some reason people think some of the shows on Comedy Central are news shows. They’re not. They’re comedy shows,” Shine said, adding that the writers’ job is to cherry pick and produce entertaining content.

Also Read: Jon Stewart on Fox News and Its White Santa Debate (Video)

Asked whether the constant attacks harm the company’s ability to do its daily job, Shine said unequivocally, “No.”

Fox boasts low turnover and a strong company culture, both of which contribute to its ratings success, Shine says.

“What Roger likes to say is, he hires good people. He hires good on-air people, he hires good producers, he hires good technicians… and he gives them the tools necessary to do their jobs,” Shine said.

“There’s a lot of happy people around here,” he added.

Also Read: Megyn Kelly’s Fox News Show Soars in Day 2 Ratings

And perhaps there should be. Though Fox is down four percent year-over-year in total day viewership and 13 percent in primetime, the addition of “The Kelly File” at 9 p.m. has proven explosive for the network. 2012 was an election year that benefitted from higher viewership across all networks, due in part to primetime debates and results coverage.

Shine said the biggest challenge heading into 2014 will be gearing up to cover midterm elections, which will be critical for both parties. And talk of the 2016 race won’t be far behind.