Fox News' 2016 Ratings Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

In the world of cable news, there are a handful of conventional wisdoms that you can rely on. You have to be the first ones to get the big story. You have to watch what you say. And if Bill O'Reilly isn't hip with your lingo, things might get explosive. And, of course, the dominant reality — Fox News is a ratings juggernaut. But if you're worrying about what Fox News' ratings mean for the 2016 election, you can probably rest easy, because they don't mean a whole lot — at least no more than they ever have.

Make no mistake, Fox News just has a dynamite week. It was their first full slate of weekday shows since the the 2016 primary season really kicked off in earnest (thanks to Hillary Clinton's leap into the race on April 12) and they drew more eyeballs than any other cable channel. That's not even limited to news, just any cable channel writ large.

There are few things that cable news networks love more than a strong viewership figure — a fecal-themed disaster of some sort, perhaps? — but it's easy to lose perspective. Despite all the brouhaha that surrounds cable news ratings, there's a pretty basic fact that casts serious doubt on just how influential or relevant these channels really are. Namely: a really small percentage of Americans watch any of them at all.

But here's the thing: even at that level, it's a positively tiny percentage of the country. According to Deadline Hollywood, they drew 1.69 million viewers last week, a figure that annihilates their direct competitors — CNN and MSNBC notched just 523,000 and 516,000 respectively.

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But nonetheless, scraping up against the bottom of two million viewers isn't such a staggering thing. In 2013, according to U.S. census figures, the United States was home to over 316,000,000 people, and only about 242,753,607 of them were voting-age. Simply put, even if every person watching Fox News were both legally able to vote, their total viewership last week would be considerably less than one percent of the voting-age public — 0.69 percent, in fact.

This isn't to, say, deny that Fox News' ratings are impressive within their field, to be clear, or even within the realm of cable programming overall. It's more to point out that all of these channels are absorbed by a highly remote percentage of the U.S. public. It's easy to lose perspective on this, as the culture of cable news often feels rather insular, but it's true. And considering even further that Fox News has been dominating this battleground for well over a decade, there's no reason to think they'll have any more of an impact in 2016 than they did in 2012 or 2008 — not enough for conservatives, that is to say.

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