Morning Consult does a lot of analysis on the power of brands in politics and marketing. Today they published a piece on cable news viewership that I found absolutely fascinating.
There was no question that Fox News dominates news consumption across the country. Fox News has topped Nielsen Ratings for 40 straight months, and it’s not even close. But what is surprising is how geographically broad Fox viewership is and how geographically concentrated its competitors viewers are. And how many registered Democrats now get their news from Fox.
Fox News is the most-watched cable news outlet in 70% of the country’s congressional districts:
Fox News is the most-watched cable news outlet in 299 of the country’s 436 districts by a margin of at least 2 percentage points. (The analysis was based on the share of adults who said they watched each outlet at least once a week and was performed using Pennsylvania’s pre-2018 districting.)
That’s not great news for Nancy Pelosi. Of the small number of people who are following impeachment coverage closely, it’s likely Fox News’s coverage they are choosing to watch.
But what about the congressional districts where Fox News is not the leader?
Residents in 63 districts watch nonpartisan CNN the most by the same margin, and left-leaning MSNBC is the most-watched cable news network in just one district: California’s 2nd, a historically Democratic district that encompasses the state’s coast north of San Francisco.
Expanding that margin underscores the power of Fox News, which boasts a consumption advantage of at least 10 points over the other outlets in 104 districts, including 10 in Florida and 15 in Texas, while CNN reigns in 16 districts, seven of which are in California. MSNBC disappears as a top outlet at this margin.
Just one district has a majority of residents tuning in to one outlet regularly: New York’s 12th, where 56.3 percent of residents watch CNN at least once a week.
What about independents?
Independents, who according to the data consume the three cable news networks at a lower rate than Republicans or Democrats and are often a decisive voting bloc, are slightly more likely to consume Fox News. It’s the most-watched cable channel among independents in 306 districts by a 2-point margin, while independents in 56 districts watch CNN the most. MSNBC was not the most-watched cable news outlet among independents in any district.
Fox News also has the highest floor in terms of adults tuning in, as the network appears to attract people across the spectrum:
Fox News also has the highest floor among all adults by congressional district: California’s 27th — which has been solidly Democratic since 2001 — has the lowest viewership, yet nearly 1 in 5 still tune in at least once a week…
There was also no correlation between concentration in Fox News viewership and the political leanings of a district. Six of the 15 districts with the highest share of weekly Fox News viewers register as red (with a Cook Political Report partisan voting index of at least “R+6”), while five are blue. Districts with intense Republican viewership of Fox News, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly blue.
On some level, it’s not surprising that Fox News is attracting a large viewership of Democratic voters. Left-leaning news outlets have staked out such extreme progressive positions that they are bound to alienate moderate viewers. I’m sure the number of crossover viewers that Fox News engages has increased substantially in the Trump / identity politics era.
There’s also the fact that if you want to know what is actually happening with the government, you aren’t going to get it from networks that folks within the administration can’t stand. Obama folks weren’t running to Fox News with scoops. You have to be insane to think MSNBC or CNN have any kind of meaningful access or insight into Trump’s dealings. Getting your news from MSNBC now is kind of like wanting to know what’s happening in someone’s life and asking their bitter ex-wife for an update.
Also, you have to go looking for news that is not all Donald Trump all the time. This is especially true if you are interested in economic and business news. No serious person is reliably watching anything from the NBC universe for economic commentary. (“Jobs numbers just blew through economists’ expectations! A recession is imminent!”)
You have to wonder: If there is so much more of an audience for right-leaning news sources, why is the media landscape not more competitive? Why do you have a bunch of news outlets competing for the smallest share of the pie?
Sure, part of the answer there is that almost all media production is concentrated in New York City. (CNN is in the very red state of Georgia, however.) But you would think someone would try to edge in on Fox News eventually, and that somehow has not happened. Are the barriers to entry in traditional media really that high?
Of course, there is much debate about how much cable news even matters. There was a long-running joke years ago that a lot of millennials get their news from comedians. And I always thought there was a kernel of truth in that. Generation Z seems to rely heavily on YouTube, where commentators are perhaps granted more freedom of expression than they would be in traditional media spaces. (Generation Z also seems to be the anti-millennials, and leans conservative.) There are also podcasts, but there’s surprisingly little ideological diversity in podcasts.
In a sense, Republicans have always preferred non-traditional platforms. They built a talk radio empire that still exists even as new technology has been introduced. (Now you can listen to Rush through an app on your smartphone.) So perhaps that is why Fox does not have any competitors on television. It’s competing overall with other platforms for an audience.