September 22, 2020

Its Viewers Are Graying, but Their Passion Pays for Fox News

Fox News continues to be near the top in cable television in terms of the number of viewers it attracts, but it is near the top in another category, too: the median age of its audience is among the oldest in television.

For most of the television business — the segment that relies on advertising — that would be serious cause for concern because ad sales are almost always based on a target age of 25 to 54, and Fox News, for the last two years, has had a median age of 65-plus in its ratings both for the full day and for prime time.

But up until now at least, Fox News has been more able than any other television entity to defy the tyranny of the demos, as they are known in the business. And the network, which has upturned traditions and expectations throughout its history, has earned consistently enormous profits, relying on the commitment and loyalty of its audience.

“I don’t think you can fully capture the value Fox News brings by looking at the Nielsen ratings alone,” said Craig Moffett, the longtime financial analyst who specializes in cable. Mr. Moffett, who heads his own firm, said that the key to Fox News’s continued financial strength has been “the level of passion and engagement” it inspires in its viewers.

That translates into big money because cable systems now pay Fox News one of the highest per-subscriber fees in television, 94 cents a month, topped in cable television only by a few networks, most of which have expensive sports rights to pay. (By comparison, CNN gets 57 cents a subscriber, according to SNL Kagan Research.) As Mr. Moffett put it, “There are a handful of networks consumers are deeply passionate about out of all proportion to Nielsen ratings, and distributors know if you don’t have those networks, then woe be to you.”

With close to 100 million subscribers in total, Kagan estimated Fox News will take in $1.11 billion this year from subscription fees before it ever sells a single commercial. Still, the network faces some significant questions as it goes forward: How old is too old? And when does the issue have to be addressed?

Fox News declined to make executives available for comment, but several recent signs — including changing personalities for some of its weekday programs — suggest the network may have decided the time has come to confront the issue of age.

Just how old is its audience? It is impossible to be precise because Nielsen stops giving an exact figure for median age once it passes 65. But for six of the last eight years, Fox News has had a median age of 65-plus and the number of viewers in the 25-54 year old group has been falling consistently, down five years in a row in prime time, from an average of 557,000 viewers five years ago to 379,000 this year. That has occurred even though Fox’s overall audience in prime time is up this year, to 2.02 million from 1.89 million three years ago.

The network also has been faced with a recent string of nightly wins in that 25-54 audience by CNN, which had been hopelessly behind in recent years.

“The numbers indicate they haven’t been replacing the younger viewers,” Mr. Moffet said of Fox News. Many of the loyal viewers the network has always had are simply aging up beyond the 54-year cutoff for many ad buyers. The result is an audience edging consistently above that 65-plus number.

News audiences always trend old, and the viewers of Fox’s competitors are hardly in the full flower of youth. MSNBC’s median age for its prime-time shows this year is 60.6; CNN’s is 59.8.

In terms of the rest of television, Fox News also is quite a bit older than networks considered to have a base of older viewers. CBS has frequently been needled for having older viewers, but at 56.8, its median viewer is far younger than Fox News’s. (Viewers at Fox News’s sister network, Fox Broadcasting, have a median age of 50.2; at ABC, the median is 54.4; at NBC, it’s 47.7.)

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