After years of trying to overcome 21st Century Fox's (NASDAQ:FOXA) Fox News channel, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (the owner of MSNBC) and Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) (owner of CNN) have essentially thrown in the towel. Neither of the cable news channels considers itself a hard news channel any longer.
Back in the middle of 2013, MSNBC president Phil Griffin was quoted in a New York Times article as saying that breaking news wasn't what the network does. "Our brand is not that."
Griffin was referring to the fact MSNBC has decided to focus primarily on politics, and specifically politics with a liberal spin. This was after unsuccessfully trying for some time to target different demographics. The change was permanently made when ratings at the network jumped as Keith Olbermann criticized the perceived conservative leanings of the Fox News Channel and the Bush presidency.
More recently, Jeff Zucker of CNN said he is going to migrate away from news-only and focus on shows that will compete more with the likes of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Zucker has specifically stated he wants to "broaden the definition of what news is." What he's basically saying is that the network can't compete in the area of breaking news, so it wants to offer programming that people will watch when there aren't any big news story to report. CNN has historically done well during key news cycles, but underperform outside of that, so it makes sense for it to make these changes.
MSNBC and CNN can't compete directly with the Fox News Channel. The question is whether or not this is an important development for investors.
Fox News numbers
For 2013, subscription revenue at Fox News has jumped to $0.94 a month for each customer, reaching approximately $1.1 billion for the year. That would make the Fox News Network the sixth-largest cable network, according to SNL Kagan.
As for viewers, Nielsen data show that through Dec. 8 Fox News averaged 1.774 million prime time viewers (a 13% drop from 2012) and 297,000 adults aged 25-54 (a decline of 30%). MSNBC was next with 645,000 overall viewers, with 203,000 25-54 year olds (falling 29% in both categories). CNN was third with 578,000 nightly viewers (down 15%), and 187,000 in the 25-54 demographic (down 16%).
The addition of Megan Kelly on Fox News was a brilliant move and well-timed, as she has broken out with big viewer numbers. This should drive the popularity of Fox News even higher.
This is especially important when considering its competitors struggled to find an alternative to Fox, and Fox itself has apparently come up with it in Kelly. In her first full month, "The Kelly File" jumped to the no. 2 show in cable ratings, generating an average of 2.2 million viewers. That's up from the 1.6 million viewers that Sean Hannity drew. Kelly was helped by the government shutdown, which attracted more viewers. Kelly could boost the network even further, although we'll have to wait a little longer to see if the shuffling of Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren results in an overall increase in viewers for Fox News or merely a redistribution of the same viewers.
It will also take some time to see whether or not Kelly is able to attract a younger demographic. If she can pull that off, it'll make Fox News even more profitable for its parent company.
Future of cable news
As can be seen by these moves, the future of cable news is going to be dramatically different than what we're used to. Both CNN and MSNBC are taking different routes, with MSNBC targeting the progressive talk market while CNN focuses on the more general news market (with an emphasis on redefining what is considered news).
Fox News is continuing on with its successful news focus, although with the addition of Kelly is offering a different brand than that of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. If Kelly can continue to bring in big numbers for Fox, it will further distance the company from its competitors, who are no longer trying to compete against Fox in news. That should be a benefit to investors.