With The Fox News Empire In A Ratings Slump, Where's Roger Ailes' Magic Touch?

As a TV pro, Roger Ailes is routinely praised in the press for his Midas touch. According to years of fawning coverage, Ailes has an uncanny ability to tap the programming pulse of the public. If that's true, now would be a good time for him to find his magic stroke because he just signed a contract reportedly worth more than $20 million annually, and two of his most important properties are flailing.

Fox's latest Nielsen numbers are bad. Really bad. Its worst in 12 years. And early indications are the slump may be part of a larger, systemic problem that could cause bigger headache as fast-climbing MSNBC continues to post gains.

President Obama's first term proved to be a ratings winner for Fox News as the channel gleefully projected the inner demons of the right wing and marketed itself as the final defender of freedom. Early 2013 indicators though, suggest that ratings cycle may be played out.

Question: Does Ailes the programming guru have a Plan B?

That's not the Fox chief's only problem. Ailes also runs Fox Business, whose cable ratings remain anemic, and whose entire audience of 25-54 viewers can often fit inside a hockey arena, despite the fact Fox Business is available in 60 million homes coast to coast.

But that problem pales to the one looming at Fox News. According to Nielsen numbers, not only did MSNBC enjoy big gains in January, but for the Monday-Sunday primetime shows Fox logged its worst ratings since August 2001. (For Monday-Friday primetime, it was Fox's worst showing since May 2006.) Fox is still the most-watched cable news channel, but the margins are shrinking in a hurry, especially in the coveted 25-54 demo during primetime. (On The Record With Greta Van Susteren appears to be just weeks away from losing the 10 p.m. demo battle  to MSNBC's The Last Word.)

This gives you an idea of the January ratings winners and losers, via NewsCorpse.com:

I can hear the Fox defenders insisting the election season's over so of course cable news ratings drop off once the main event passes, right? Also, Obama won, so it's not surprising Fox's conservative viewers are tuning out for now.

Wrong and wrong.

MSNBC has been able to sustain the ratings growth it enjoyed during the campaign season when viewers flocked to programs for news and information. So why can't Fox sustain viewers? And if you go back to early 2009 when Obama was inaugurated, Fox News' ratings didn't decline in the wake of a Democratic victory like they are now. In 2009, its ratings went up. In fact, Fox News' first quarter ratings that year skyrocketed. (Sean Hannity's audience January 2009 grew 69 percent compared to January 2008.)

From a February 2009 industry report:

Two weeks into President Barack Obama's time in the White House, with a changed line-up to go with the change on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Fox News Channel is posting stronger ratings than during the end of George W. Bush's time in office.

Four years ago, Obama's presidency translated into ratings gold for Fox News, aided in part by the arrival of Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and Fox's full-on embrace of the fringe. Four years later though, that passion seems to have been replaced by indifference.

Or maybe the ratings drop-off stems from hard feelings. Maybe tuned-out Fox viewers feel like they were duped on Election Night. Led by the channel to believe the country suffered a severe case of buyers remorse and would vote Obama office at the first possible opportunity, Fox faithful were forced not only to watch the Democrat post an another election victory, but do it with ease. In other words, almost nothing Fox News had told its aging viewers about the state of the campaign, or about the state of the country, was accurate.

It's true that Fox viewers have rarely held the channel accountable for the bedrock of information that its programming is built on. (Don't people watch Fox in order to become misinformed?) But the elaborate election ruse may have been too much for some faithful to take. (Note that in 2008, Fox didn't bother pretending Sen. John McCain was going to win.) Any lingering resentment could explain why Fox just posted its worst primetime ratings since President George W. Bush's first summer in the White House.

As for struggling Fox Business, the channel simply continues to flounder. It's true that its ratings are up modestly from last year. But when you're improving on dreadfully weak ratings, modest bumps don't mean much.

In 2011, when the channel was drawing just 10,000 25-54 viewers a source told AdWeek that when it launched in 2007, channel executives thought they'd be doing “a lot better than” that. Nearly a year and a half later, the story isn't much better: Fox Business' target demo audience has edged up to just 14,000 viewers.

And some of the rating for those Fox Business shows are just astounding, especially for the 25-54 demo. According to Nielsen, 16 of the 18 lowest rated shows in all of cable news belong to Fox Business, with several of them attracting fewer than 10,000 viewers aged 25-54.

Fox Business' sputtering performance six years after its launch raises doubts about Ailes' supposed programming magic. Will the looming slump at Fox News simply confirm it?