On October 7, 1996, FoxNews had a relatively inauspicious debut in only a few American living rooms (it didn't even have a distributor in Manhattan). CNN had already established itself as the global leader and the media thought that if CNN was to be challenged, it was going to be from MSNBC, which had started only months before FoxNews. Ten years later and FoxNews is the undisputed leader in cable news in the US. Given that today FoxNews celebrates its tenth birthday, I thought it would be appropriate for me to critique the channel somewhat.
First up, a confession. I started watching FoxNews in 2000 in the lead-up to the 2000 Presidential election. I became addicted to it watching the Florida recount. When I lived in the US in 2003-04, FoxNews remained my cable news channel of choice and it was not uncommon for me to watch several hours of it a day. Although I don't have the time to watch too much cable news these days, when I have a choice I still watch FoxNews.
In my mind FoxNews has succeeded as a cable news channel for several reasons. First, FoxNews is eminently watchable. Its anchors, on Fox & Friends, FoxNews Live, and its evening shows are all personable, permitted to show their personality on air and to occasionally offer their opinions.
Combine likeable people with colourful graphics and sets and a wide mix of stories, and you have entertaining news. News that is actually fun to watch, and I can't think of any other news channel anywhere in the world that has that quality. The show and anchor that best encapsulates this is the Fox Report with Shepherd Smith.
Second, FoxNews appeals to all of America. It doesn't believe that news is only for the elite, the educated, or the wealthy. This inclusive attitude and willingness to embrace all of America means that it is able to appeal to a broader audience than its rivals.
Third, talk and opinion is more engaging and interesting TV than "straight" news. FoxNews takes the news and gets people to take two different, usually opposing views on that news. This sort of talk not only gives the news some context, but it creates conflict. And conflict, as we all know, is good TV.
Fourth, FoxNews lives up to the cliche it has created - it really is "fair and balanced". Well, that is apart from two of its evening talk shows - The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes - but those shows have never claimed to present the news. All points of view are covered on FoxNews, and all points of view are challenged. This is unique not just to US cable news, but to pretty much all news shows I have ever seen.
Fifth, the above reasons combine to create this cult effect that means you become a loyal and regular viewer. You want the channel to succeed, you like the anchors and reporters as people, and you will willingly defend the channel to any non-believer. This also means you are content to watch it even in slow news cycles.
I believe that FoxNews creator Roger Ailes has created something unique. FoxNews has strong news values, but also has a strong sense of identity that people respond to. You sense that they have fun putting the news together and enjoy being number one, and so you have fun and are only too happy to do your bit in helping FoxNews remain number one. Plus, you feel as though you are appreciated.
I suppose what I'm saying is that FoxNews has created a community that will keep on watching for years to come.
I've read three articles in the last few days that support this conclusion. In the Los Angeles Times, Brian C. Anderson offers this defence of FoxNews:
The propaganda charge is unfair, at least when it comes to the network's presentation of news. In the 2004 presidential race, Fox pollsters consistently underestimated President Bush's support. In its final preelection poll, Fox had Kerry winning by a couple of points, one of the only polls to show the Democrat on top. I'm not sure a right-wing fifth column would do that.
A recent comprehensive study by UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose and University of Missouri-Columbia economics professor Jeffrey Milyo found Brit Hume's Special Report - Fox's most straightforward news show - more centrist than any of the three major networks' evening newscasts, all of which leaned left.
The program is a model of smart news television.
And although it's true that the network's opinion shows (as opposed to its news shows) are, as they're supposed to be, noisily opinionated, it's equally true that Fox's biggest star, O'Reilly, is no mainstream Republican ...
Liberals troop into and out of the Fox studios every day - some of them, like host Alan Colmes and news analyst Marvin Kalb, affiliated with the channel. There's no doubt, of course, that Fox News is more conservative than CBS or CNN. But, after all, that was its founding mission.
Fox's real ethos is not Republican but anti-elitist - a major reason it connects with so many Americans and annoys so many coastal elites. "There's a whole country that elitists will never acknowledge," Ailes once observed. "What people resent deeply out there are those in the 'blue states' thinking they're smarter."