Fox News posted an astonishing 50% jump in profit last quarter amid a disastrous advertising recession, and it's basically the only thing making money in Rupert Murdoch's empire. Why? Because the GOP has cratered.
Fox News' viewership is up 45% over the last year, and it's easy to see why: The ascendancy of a charismatic black Democrat has driven frightened, paranoid, enraged, nativist zealots into the ideological embrace of an outlet that habitually reconfirms everything they already believe. Watching Glenn Beck's spell-binding sermons on Barack Obama's racism is comforting to people who believe that their way of life—namely, one in which fatherly white Christians protect us from danger both internal and external—is under attack. So they do it more frequently. Tuning into Hannity et.al. becomes a life-affirming political act.
But while cable news is niche, politics is mass. The chart above shows GOP party approval in as reported by New York Times/CBS in national polls going back to 2006 and Fox News' total primetime audience, in millions, over the same time period. Fox News can and does thrive with a primetime audience of 2.5 million, many of which are the aforementioned zealots. The Republican Party needs more than that to function electorally. And the aforementioned angry zealotry that's in vogue on Fox News is distasteful to the independent voters that the GOP needs to court.
Unfortunately for Republicans and fortunately for Roger Ailes, a feedback loop has been created: As disaffected conservatives turn increasingly to Fox News, Fox News caters its programming to keep them coming back, turning, for instance, the Tea Parties into a daylong televised festival of rage. But given Fox's well-earned brand identification with the Republican Party, and vice versa, that programming serves to promote a view of Republicans as angry white people who hate Puerto Rican judges. Which turns off independent voters, which further isolates the diehard rejectionist wing of the party, which increases the importance of Fox News in their lives as a reassuring voice telling them to be strong in the face of the barbarian hordes—or, as Glenn Beck puts it, "We surround them."
The more viewers Fox attracts, the more voters the GOP repels. And the more voters the GOP repels, the more viewers Fox attracts. The most important part of the dynamic is that Fox News has no interest in doing anything other than attracting viewers. It will continue to ride this wave of anger and resentment irrespective of what impact it has on the Republican Party until it stops making them money. And yes, Barack Obama's popularity is dropping, and the bloom is beginning to come off the rose. But the GOP hasn't seen a concomitant rise in popularity: Just yesterday it hit the lowest approval rating it has seen in a quarter century, according to the New York Times.
Graphic by Steven Dressler.