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Fox News’s biggest problem isn’t the Ailes ouster, it’s that its average viewer is a dinosaur

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

One of the world’s most powerful television executives just lost his job. Roger Ailes, who’s led Fox News since its inception in 1996, left the popular cable news network today (July 21) after an internal review into his alleged sexual harassment of several female employees. Ailes has denied the allegations.

This makes the future of the US’s most-watched cable news network murky. Some media analysts see Ailes’s ouster as an opportunity to move in a new, and better, direction. Others say it will likely lead to a decline for the network—instability is rarely a good thing in today’s volatile media landscape. It could even lead to the departures of some of the network’s high-profile talent, like Megyn Kelly (who was among those to accuse Ailes of harassment) and Sean Hannity (who has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if Ailes departs).

Still, at worst, Ailes’s dismissal will hardly be devastating. Fox News has for 14 years been the highest rated cable news source in the United States, by a fairly significant margin. It rakes in a profit of $1.5 billion a year for parent company 21st Century Fox and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, well above rivals CNN and MSNBC. These things are unlikely to change significantly just because Ailes is leaving. (Murdoch himself, who’s 85, will step in as “acting CEO” until a permanent replacement is found.)

In fact, Fox’s impending crisis really has nothing to do with Ailes. It’s a crisis faced by other news networks as well, but Fox most of all: Its average viewer is extremely old.

The median age of a primetime Fox News viewer is 68, according to Nielsen. That means half of the channel’s viewers are older than 68. CNN’s median primetime viewer, meanwhile, is 59. Fox News still has more total viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic that advertisers covet, but CNN and others are gaining.

It’s possible Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, who are acquiring control of their father’s media empire as he ages, see all this as a good thing. Fox News, for now, has a monopoly on the “older, conservative viewer.” As currently-old conservatives get even older and, eventually, die, a new generation of viewers will replace them.

But how long can that last when you’re not attracting younger audiences? Today’s young people are watching less traditional TV and more online content—especially for their news (some of which cater to their sensibilities far better than banal news networks can). Fox News can’t afford to just wait around for these younger viewers to become old.

Compounding that issue is that Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican party has weakened Fox’s seemingly indestructible stature as the go-to source of news for political conservatives in America.

Last week, Hannity flew Newt Gingrich to Indianapolis on his private plane to meet with Trump as the candidate was meeting with potential running mates. “I wouldn’t be happy with anyone but Newt,” Hannity said on his Fox News show days before.

Two days later, Trump picked Indiana governor Mike Pence to be his vice president.

In another election cycle, Hannity’s wish might have been the Republican presidential nominee’s command. But Trump has never cared much for doing what other people tell him to do, including and especially Fox News, the so-called kingmaker of the conservative movement and pulpit for the party establishment.

Fox has mostly repaired its relationship with Trump following his very public feud with Megyn Kelly, but damage was already done. According to YouGov’s Brand Index, the perception of Fox News by Republican adults was at its weakest in three years in February. It’s still overwhelmingly the most-trusted news source for Republicans, but cracks in its reputation are beginning to show.

That could turn into a bigger problem if Trump wins the presidency. What’s more likely—if most election projections and forecasts are accurate—is that he’ll lose, and Fox will regain some of its political sway lost during Trump’s campaign. Maybe Trump takes his ball and goes home—he’s reportedly considering starting his own cable network to rival Fox, should he lose in November. Or maybe he just goes back to selling steaks and bankrupting casinos. Whatever the case, Fox can play kingmaker again.

The question, though, is for how long? The Murdochs, and whoever they appoint to replace Ailes as the head of Fox News, need to figure out a way to attract younger viewers. Ailes certainly couldn’t do it, as successful as he was at building up the channel from scratch.

Much of the 2016 US presidential election has been about division—sometimes literal ones (like giant walls) but more often the things that pull groups of Americans apart. Fox News could use Ailes’s departure as a sign that it needs to become less divisive and more inclusive, not only to younger viewers but to, yes, people of other political affiliations.

Fox News is among the least trusted news sources for Americans who identify as politically liberal. One way to grow an audience might be to welcome those people instead of doubling down on those who are already on the Fox News train.

A move like that, of course, could alienate the conservative viewers who made Fox News into the cable giant that it is today. In the post-Ailes era, Fox News must decide if it wants to become younger and more diverse, and perhaps ensure a future for itself in the process, or to continue with the status quo, which will in all likelihood be perfectly fine for awhile, but won’t last forever.

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