Apr 25, 2023 - Economy

Shock firings signal new era for cable news

Cable news 8pm ET hour show viewership
Data: Nielsen; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

A string of high-profile media firings in the span of 24 hours has redefined the cable news industry as it enters a period of decline.

Why it matters: Cable news has been under extraordinary business pressure, leading programming to become more boisterous and opinionated. But the departure of some of the industry's most controversial figures from the major networks could now temper that ratings race.

Driving the news: Fox News on Monday said the network and its star primetime host Tucker Carlson "have agreed to part ways" after more than a decade.

  • The decision to fire Carlson was made Friday night by Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, a source told Axios. Carlson was surprised by the news when he was notified Monday morning.
  • The firing, sources said, is related to potentially damaging information related to Carlson, including information from pre-trial discovery materials related to Dominion Voting Systems' recently-settled defamation lawsuit against Fox, as well as tapes that a former Fox News producer is threatening to release as a part of her lawsuit against the network.

Be smart: Carlson's 8pm ET primetime show has been one of the most-viewed cable news shows for years.

  • It routinely averaged over 3 million viewers per night, an astonishing figure compared to rivals MSNBC and CNN, which averaged roughly 1 million and 703,000 viewers in the 8pm hour for the first quarter of the year.

The other side: Carlson was known to share conspiracy theories on his program and lean into outrage politics. His ratings success put pressure on other cable news networks to compete.

  • One of the notable primetime anchors who rose to prominence during the Trump era as a more progressive voice in primetime was CNN's Don Lemon.

Between the lines: Minutes after Carlson's firing was announced, CNN said Lemon, who had been moved from primetime to host CNN's morning show last year, had also been fired.

  • Lemon said in a Twitter post that he was “stunned" and that he was informed by his agent Monday morning that he had been terminated.
  • In a fitting twist, Lemon hired former CNN EVP and chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, who was ousted from the network last year for an undisclosed affair between her and former CNN boss Jeff Zucker, to handle the public relations fallout from his firing.
  • Sources told Axios that a number of factors led to CNN making what it ultimately called "a business decision." Lemon's tone — once primetime ratings gold — didn't fit as well with CNN's new approach to more moderate conversations.

Behind the scenes: In both instances, the networks responsible for firing their top anchors didn't announce immediate replacements, in part because finding the right hosts to fill those spots will not be easy.

  • Fox News will be hard-pressed to find a news personality that can attract the same types of ratings as Carlson, especially following a high-profile defamation suit that could force anchors to be more measured around airing things like election lies.
  • CNN's management has indicated they are less focused on ratings than on fixing the network's reputation in a post-Trump world.

Zoom out: Both firings came the day after Comcast said it had fired NBCU's CEO Jeff Shell after he admitted to having an "inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company."

  • On Monday, it was reported that Shell was being investigated for a relationship with CNBC senior international correspondent Hadley Gamble.
  • Gamble's lawyer told The Wall Street Journal that she filed a sexual harassment and sex discrimination complaint at the company against Shell.

The big picture: For decades, cable news networks were held to little account by their owners and shareholders for anything but ratings. But in the past few years, more top executives and network stars have been pushed out either for bad behavior or to temper the tone of coverage.

  • CNN boss Jeff Zucker resigned last year due to a previously undisclosed relationship with a longtime senior colleague. Zucker's replacement, Chris Licht, fired a few of the network's top anchors, in what was seen as an effort to reconstruct CNN's reputation as a more moderate channel.
  • Former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes resigned in 2016 after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Fox News fired its star primetime anchor, Tucker Carlson's 8pm ET predecessor Bill O'Reilly, months later following sexual harassment complaints. Fox cancelled the show of longtime anchor Lou Dobbs in 2021 soon after being sued for defamation related to election falsehoods.

The bottom line: The trio of firings in the past few days were shocking, but fall in line with a broader trend of cable news networks parting ways with executives and talent that could threaten their stability, even at the cost of better ratings.

Yes, but: Controversy and risk-taking still attract a crowd. The cable networks' problem is that the personalities who excel at that game also tend to flame out.

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