This is relevant in light of Bill O’Reilly being fired from Fox News under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations. “The O’Reilly Factor” has been positioned in the press as a ratings powerhouse. If cable news ratings were soaring, Bill O’Reilly was leading the charge. The reality, however, is somewhat different from the headlines.
There is no question that O’Reilly has been key to Fox News’s prime-time success, helping the network rise head and shoulders above the other cable news networks. But there is a reason why you seldom hear anything about his actual ratings. They’re decent, but by no means great. O’Reilly’s live adult 18-49 rating in the Q4 (election season) was only 0.26. Among the key news demo of adults 25-54, it was just 0.40 – less than half a rating point.
The lowest-rated regular prime-time series on CBS got three times as many viewers. Just for some additional perspective, Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob” did better than “The O’Reilly Factor” among adults 18-49, and ION’s “Criminal Minds” reruns did just as well among adults 25-54.
When I worked on the agency side, I tended to analyze audiences in terms of ratings. When I went to a cable network, they wanted me to talk only in terms of impressions (400,000 impressions sounded a lot better and easier to sell than a 0.35 rating). There are many ways to make a relatively small number of viewers seem larger than it really is.
So how much will Bill O’Reilly’s departure actually hurt Fox News? Well, with so many advertisers pulling out of his show right before the upfront season gets underway, combined with the network’s efforts to buy Sky News in the U.K.(where they might not look kindly on rumors of sexual harassment), the network didn’t have much choice here.
There was also a danger that advertiser defections might spill over to other Fox News programs, particularly with the very visible protests heating up. But there is plenty of time to demonstrate that Tucker Carlson (who improved on Megyn Kelly’s ratings when she left the network -- and her ratings were higher than O’Reilly’s) can hold his audience at 8 p.m., and “The Five,” a panel discussion series that moves into the 9 p.m. slot, can do better than its competition.
Despite the overblown press accounts, the ratings bar isn’t that high. And it’s not as if right-leaning news viewers will turn to other news outlets.
Even if ratings decline, if Fox News is still well ahead of CNN and MSNBC, it will be just fine. Beating the competition is more important than the actual size of its ratings. And as long as no additional accusations aimed at other Fox News hosts or management emerge, advertisers should eventually return to the fold.
The same debate regarding the actual size of cable TV news versus broadcast TV news audiences - including the comparison to SpongeBob's ratings, believe it or not - has been going on in political chatrooms for the past 10 to 12 years, at least.
And the impact on Fox News fans when they're reminded of those real numbers has been either dead silence, or quick reminders that MSNBC's numbers are much smaller. Which, while accurate, doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot, other than the other fact that "their guy" is in the White House.
We have to remember that average minute ratings are only part of the story where reach is concerned. If O'Reilly attracted .8% of the country's population per minute, his nightly reach, for the entire one-hour show plus reruns may have been closer to 2%. Across a week---five nights---this probably expanded to something like 4-5% and over a month to roughly double that. The same principle applies to the whole Fox channel. I would expect that its monthly reach among adults is around 20%, which is a fairly large figure.
Another example of the differences between reach and frequency comes from the fact that even though Fox news "clobbers" the other two cable news channels in average minute ratings, it's CNN which had the largest reach---per Nielsen. This tells us that Fox wins the average minute rating wars because its loyalists tune in and watch much more of its content, while a typical CNN viewer---and there are somewhat more of them---tunes in but doesn't stay hour after hour.