Fox News’ Ratings Surprise: ‘The Five’ Keeps Outperforming Primetime

Everyone’s talking about this week’s furor at the Oscars — even the hosts at Fox News Channel’s “The Five.”

On Monday afternoon, regulars Greg Gutfeld, Dana Perino, Jesse Watters and Jeanine Pirro held forth with guest Piers Morgan — the British journalist and TV host who has demonstrated a proclivity for getting into celebrity feuds — sitting in a chair typically reserved for someone with more liberal political views. In the show’s opening segment, however, politics went out the window. Today was a day to discuss Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock the previous evening.

Pirro, a former judge and district attorney, felt Smith’s actions were prosecutable. The Oscar ceremony “is not a bar” where fights take place, she said, noting that if the actor wasn’t reprimanded in some fashion, “I should go over to ‘Saturday Night Live,’” where she is often lampooned, “and go crazy over there.” Meanwhile, Gutfeld took the whole incident in stride. “Part of me was just grateful something interesting happened” at the event, which has been shedding viewers noticeably over the years.

The aforementioned banter may seem a little silly, but it’s no laughing matter for executives at Fox News Channel.

The most-watched program at the Fox Corp. cable outlet for the past two quarters hasn’t been one of the opinion hours hosted by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham. Instead, the Fox News show with the biggest overall audience is “The Five,” a panel program that producers believe airs views from the right (four of the five co-hosts) and left (a single host, who rotates among three regulars). The show, which airs at 5 p.m. — not typically a bulwark of top viewing in the TV business — lured an average audience of around 3.68 million for the first three months of the year. Fox News’ second-most watched program, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” won an average of nearly 3.63 million. Carlson’s show retains its lead in the demographic most favored by advertisers, people between 25 and 54.

“I think we have really benefitted a lot from people working at home,” says Megan Albano, a Fox News senior vice president who oversees the show and the network’s weekend programming. Viewers, she says, are attracted to the idea that “the hosts do a good job of taking the issues seriously, but not taking themselves seriously.”

Viewership for the program has surged at a critical moment for the cable network’s parent. Fox Corporation is about to start haggling with cable and satellite distributors over the fees it gets for Fox News carriage. Proving that Fox News continues to draw big, broad audiences will be paramount in the discussion. “We have over two-thirds, almost 70% of our renewals coming up over two years,” Lachlan Murdoch, CEO of Fox Corp., said during a recent investor conference. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us again to kind of capture our audience share and ratings success and translate that into pricing.”

Cable and satellite operators may not necessarily agree. Fox News’ affiliate fees, which Murdoch said represented about 55% of the outlet’s overall revenue, are projected to dip to just under $1.8 billion in 2022, according to Kagan, a market-research unit of S&P Global Intelligence, compared with around $1.84 billion in 2021. Rivals MSNBC and CNN are seen grappling with similar issues, and Kagan projects all three networks will lose subscribers in 2022.

But Fox is likely to seek price increases. “When we look at the pricing and distribution, we’re competing now on ratings with the broadcast networks,” Murdoch said. “So we don’t compare ourselves in pricing to other cable channels. So it’s really almost a broadcast retransmission pricing.”

To keep the distribution revenues flowing, or even get them growing, Fox Corp. will have to convince distributors of the growing value of Fox News Channel in the age of streaming. In recent years, executives have been telling advertisers that the network’s sizable audience includes not only conservatives, but independents and even Democrats. “The Five,” which has maintained its nod to a liberal point of view even as an influential part of Fox News’ audience has seemed to move further to the right, may be the kind of show the company needs to prove its point.

The show’s ratings trajectory isn’t guaranteed. The pandemic has brought with it an audience surge into all kinds of time periods that didn’t have one in 2019. As more people return to work more frequently, media buyers question whether shows like “The Five” or broadcast evening-news programs can retain all their new viewers.

“The culture of work has changed, and people are home a lot more than they used to be,” says Stefanie Morales, senior director of audience intelligence and strategy at Interpublic Group’s large Magna media-research firm.  As the nation moves into 2023, she says, there are expectations that some people may “reset” their working lives. Daytime shows are likely to keep some portion of their gains, she predicts — but not all. “We may kind of be up from what we saw in 2017 and 2018, but not astronomically,” says Morales. “I don’t think we are going to keep seeing it rise.” Fox News points out audience for “The Five” has continued at new high levels even as some part of the nation has started to move back to more formal working arrangements.

The rise in viewership could serve Fox well in another crucial area: advertising. In 2021, new airings of “The Five” generated $41.1 million in advertising from national brands, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. The figure represents a three-year high for the program. The average cost of a 30-second ad on “The Five” also reached a new high at $6,700, according to SMI.  The median household income of “Five” viewers in 2021 stood at $71,300 in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Nielsen. On Fox News, only Bret Baier’s audience at 6 p.m. earned more.

As such, “The Five” may help Fox News as it navigates advertising challenges in primetime, where many national sponsors stay away from hours led by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham following calls in the past for boycotts of their programs. That dynamic means the network must rely more heavily on its daytime schedule to generate the impressions some big marketers want from live news programming, one of the last formats to hold out against a general migration to streaming programs on demand.

One media buyer says “The Five” forms a block of “center right” programming with Neil Cavuto’s “Your World” at 4 p.m. and Bret Baier’s “Special Report” at 6 p.m., where an “underserved” audience that tends to skew older and female gravitates. In “The Five,” this buyer says, Fox News has put together “a cast of characters that are likable” and not as provocative as some of its other hosts and talent (Fox critics and even the hosts might take umbrage at such an analysis. Remarks by Gutfeld, Watters and Pirro have sparked several controversies over the years).

Fox News no doubt hopes it can continue to make “The Five” a viewing habit that’s hard to break. Key to the show’s identity, says Albano, is that it has “a built-in checks and balances system” that gives the hosts leeway to argue, but ensures no single person takes over the show for the day. Other networks have tried to replicate the format. In 2012, MSNBC launched “The Cycle,” a 3 p.m. panel show featuring, at various times, Krystal Ball, S.E. Cupp, Steve Kornacki , Ari Melber, Abby Huntsman and Toure. It lasted three years.

Originally conceived in 2011 as a program that would give more airtime to a bevy of Fox News contributors who did not have their own roost on the schedule, “The Five” has delivered for the network in times both easy and difficult. Fox News launched it initially as a fill-in for the departure of the controversial Glenn Beck, whose program had come to an end amid a cutback in sponsorship. For a period of a few months in 2017, it moved to primetime as Fox News dealt with the one-two punch of losing both Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly.

Now the show serves as a template of sorts for a significant chunk of the Fox News schedule. Viewers can see hints of “The Five” in “Outnumbered,” the daytime panel show; “Gutfeld!,” the late-night panel show led by “The Five” co-host” and weekend offerings like “The Big Saturday Show” and “The Big Sunday Show.” What’s more, three of “The Five” hosts — Perino, Watters and Gutfeld —  all work other hours on the Fox News schedule. Executives at Fox News have been encouraged by Gutfeld’s 11 p.m. program, which has generated more viewers than many broadcast late-night shows, and Watters’ new 7 p.m. show, which is attracting more than 3 million viewers on many evenings.

Network executives spent months calibrating the current “Five” lineup. Juan Williams — previously the show’s resident liberal — left after deciding he didn’t want to return to its New York studio after the pandemic (and sparring on air more frequently with Gutfeld). Getting the crew back to working in-person was important, says Albano. Remote production left viewers with more of an impression that bickering wasn’t resolved. “It’s easier to argue when you’re with somebody and you read body language and aren’t stepping on someone’s talking points or stepping on someone’s joke and are able to react in real time to when someone says something,” Albano says.

Rather than fill a slot in real time, Fox News rotated the lineup for months, eventually opting to move Pirro to the show full time from a weekend perch and keep three different personalities to serve as the liberal foil. Morgan isn’t known for his leftward politics, but on most days that seat is filled by Harold Ford, Jr, Jessica Tarlov or Geraldo Rivera (who has titled left on social issues, once mulled a Republican bid for one of New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats in 2013).

Keeping the show going is a little more complex than it was when it debuted, owing to the hosts’ expanding duties “It hasn’t been harder for me, but they really have to manage their days,” says Albano Should the ratings continue,  all the co-hosts will likely be in demand at Fox News.

 

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