More on Fox News’s Magnificent Money Machine

Sunday’s New York Times profile of Roger Ailes claims that Fox News “is believed to make more money than CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined.” Monday’s Financial Times showcases Newsmax, another right-leaning upstart pulling ahead of the “liberal media” pack.

Newsmax founder Chris Ruddy attributes the publication’s success—which include 2009 revenues of $35 million, up 40 percent over 2008—to the fact that “we’re a heartland publication,” and “an alternative to the mainstream news, the liberal media in New York and Washington.” Similarly, the Times piece quotes an Ailes acquaintance lauding the chairman’s suspicion of the East and West coasts. Ailes’s own explanation for his success runs in part: “My first qualification is I didn’t go to Columbia Journalism School.”

As it happens, heartland values are not so straightforwardly convertible into dollars, much as your St. Louis-bred correspondent might hope. There are more pedestrian forces at work. Newsmax’s free website, according to the FT, promotes its print magazine as well as “a growing list of paid-for print and online newspapers catering to the health and personal finance concerns of its audience, who are mostly over 50 years old.” Says Ruddy of the over-fifty demographic, “They’re the only demographic with money.”

Fox News Channel is also a hit with the over-fifties and the ad dollars they attract. But the figures are similar for CNN—47 percent of the audience share of both stations is over fifty, according to 2008 Pew data, compared to 41 percent for MSNBC. And despite Fox’s consistent lead over both cable competitors in ratings, CNN until now led Fox in profits—albeit sometimes narrowly—every year except 2007, with MSNBC in a distant third.

Projections for 2009 represent the first time that Fox has significantly overtaken CNN in profits—hence, one guesses, the Ailes profile. Cable news gets revenue from licensing fees—what cable providers like TimeWarner and Comcast pay the channel to show its content—in addition to advertising. Explained Project for Excellence in Journalism in “State of the News Media 2009”:

Cable news channels do not earn as much from advertisers as the broadcast networks or some sports or niche entertainment networks. In large part, this is because the ratings for cable news for any one program are fairly low. The highest-rated cable show, Bill O’Reilly, is still only about a quarter of that of the lowest-rated evening network newscast, the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, for instance, and most cable programs are only a fraction of that.

What finally put Fox over the top in 2009 was licensing fees, though it has led CNN in net ad revenue since 2007 and in ratings since well before that. Fox’s licensing fees jumped from forty-two cents per viewer per month to forty-nine cents in 2009, according to PEJ’s Amy Mitchell. CNN’s rose from forty-seven cents to forty-eight, and MSNBC’s held steady far below its competitors at fifteen cents. “State of the News Media” again:

The reason behind the rise in Fox News’ fees is that many of its contracts came due in recent years. With those contracts looming, Fox News made a concerted effort to negotiate higher fees from the cable systems, having established itself in the cable news world. By virtue of the increase fees, the channel was finally beginning to reap the benefits of its ratings growth. Long-term deals call for Fox News’s fees to eventually rise to 75 cents.

The point is, there’s more than one way to cash those cows.

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Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review