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Keeping Fox News at the Top of the Pack

Fox News Channel beat out a very crowded and competitive field to repeat as the most-watched cable network in primetime (among total viewers, age 2-plus) in 2017, according to Nielsen. Driven by viewers’ hunger for news surrounding the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration, Fox News led what was a big ratings year overall for cable news networks.

The Fox News win came despite the loss of two of its biggest ratings draws during the year. Primetime newstalk series host Megyn Kelly left the network’s popular The Kelly File last January to move to NBC News, while veteran on-air personality Bill O’Reilly was fired in April from his top-rated The O’Reilly Factor due to sexual harassment allegations.

Fox News programming president Suzanne Scott spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the return of Fox News to the top of the cable primetime ratings heap, and to chart the network’s plans to maintain its ratings momentum into 2018. Here’s an edited transcript of their interview.

MCN:Fox News Channel has been the most watched cable network in primetime for two consecutive years. What has fueled its ratings success?
Suzanne Scott: We do have very loyal fans who have been with us for a very long time, but we have also made a number of adjustments in the last few months because we believe that being live matters. We start our mornings off at 4 a.m. with Heather Childers and Fox and Friends FIRST, and we’re live until midnight, closing out the day with a hard news program, Fox News @ Night with Shannon Bream — we are more live than we’ve ever been. That’s certainly one of the ways that we see the business has changed. Obviously the fascination with President Trump and everything coming out of the White House has been another driver.

I would say the third thing is viewers now have access to us on their mobile devices and they’re watching and engaged and interested all the time. They want up-to-the-minute news and information. Whether it’s breaking news, political news or cultural news, you know we are providing it to them.

MCN:Does that live viewing aspect really matter that much more to today’s viewer than it did maybe 10 years ago?
SS: Yes, I believe being live matters incredibly. Viewing habits change — again this is part of the fact that people have TV screens in their pocket or their handbag. News is just like a live sporting event for people; they want live, up-to-the minute latest details and information, whether it’s a major breaking news story like the Las Vegas shooting or a hurricane. They want the latest pictures and information coming out on any story, and you have to be there for them.

MCN:You also mentioned the Donald Trump factor. Trump recently said the news networks wouldn’t be doing as well from a ratings standpoint if he wasn’t in the Oval Office. What effect has Trump had on Fox News’ overall ratings?
SS: Listen, there’s been a lot of fascination for Trump, and this has been a great year for news organizations in general and cable news networks especially. But we’ve been No. 1 [in cable news] for 16 years under a number of different administrations — President Bush, President Obama and President Trump now. So for us the fascination and interest in things coming out of the White House now is great, but we’ve been No. 1 through a number of administrations.

MCN:You also finished in the top ratings spot despite some upheaval in your primetime lineup and the loss of some major on-air talent. How were you able to maintain ratings in light of the changes?
SS: Well, we have a new schedule that’s only been in play for a couple of months but we are very pleased with the results that are coming in thus far. Our audience has stayed with us despite, to your point, the changes and the loss of the some major talent. But we are generating— new major talent, and we’re really excited about our lineup. From early in the morning at 4 a.m. with Heather Childers to Shannon Bream at 11 p.m. to the addition of Harris Faulkner at 1 and Dana Perino with The Daily Briefing at 2 p.m. to Tucker Carlson, who has done a great job [at 8 p.m.], I think our audience is excited to have Sean Hannity back at 9, and Laura Ingraham is a strong new addition for us at 10. So we’re really excited about our expanded live lineup and the developing of new shows around really interesting talent.

MCN:What are your expectations overall for the television industry in 2018?
SS: There could be more mergers; we just had our own deal with Disney. I do think that original content producers are going to be more protective of their material and making sure that it’s not just being put out on platforms. We are a worldwide newsgathering organization, which is very expensive, and we need to protect that content and make sure we’re not giving it all away, so to speak.

We are very, very successful in social media. But at the end of the day, we need our audience coming back to us on our platforms.

MCN:You mentioned the Walt Disney-21st Century Fox deal. How is that going to affect Fox News on screen and behind the cameras?
SS: I wouldn’t imagine much at all [Fox News will not be sold], but that deal is so new and there [is] a group of people much smarter than myself working out the details of that deal from a Fox News standpoint. We are really coming off a very successful year despite a number of changes and we really are looking forward to building on that for this year.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.