For Newsmax, it looks like midnight is approaching, and the upstart TV channel is in danger of turning back into a pumpkin.
The pro-Trump cable news network—which barely registered in Nielsen ratings for the first six years after its chief executive and majority owner, Chris Ruddy, launched it in May 2014—prompted massive media attention for seemingly taking Fox News head-on in the aftermath of last year’s presidential election. Perhaps more than a Cinderella story, it was a wingnut media version of David versus Goliath.
But now, a mere four months after the supposed slingshot to Fox News’ forehead, reality has intruded, and Newsmax finds itself smack-dab in the middle of a ratings collapse.
Many of the disaffected Trump supporters who initially flocked to Newsmax to gobble up unhinged election conspiracies challenging the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency have faded away now that Biden is firmly ensconced and Fox News has pivoted to aggressive coverage of the Democratic establishment’s supposed war on Christianity, support for open borders and unlimited immigration, and “cancel culture” that is allegedly depriving innocent children of their beloved Dr. Seuss books and Looney Tunes characters.
While some Newsmax insiders feel that the plummeting viewership is much ado about nothing, as other cable news networks also experience a post-inaugural erosion, others suggest that the fledgling network’s days of hoping to compete head-to-head with Fox are all but over, and that Newsmax will inevitably return to the fringes.
“I would look at it from the viewpoint of consumer marketing,” said University of Maryland business professor P.K. Kannan, who has studied the dynamics of the cable industry. “Let’s say you have Post and Kellogg cereals and each has a brand of raisin bran, and then a new, healthier version comes out with no sugar and some raisin bran eaters might like the healthier option even though it’s bland. So they’re going to focus on the consumers who want the healthier version and take them away from Post and Kellogg.”
Kannan acknowledged, however, that in this case the analogy might be better expressed this way: Instead of buying the traditional raisin bran—as marketed, say, by Fox News—some consumers are opting for the much-tastier Newsmax product, albeit a media breakfast loaded with sugar, corn syrup, addictive chemicals, and artificial flavors.
“After a while, you see that it starts dissipating. I don’t think it’s going to go back to the level of, say, August 2020”—when “Newsmax was not a player” and drawing a total viewership in the barely measurable 30,000 range. “But over time it will slowly erode. They will have to fight for their survival, like they were doing before.”
“I laughed when I saw the news about the [Newsmax ratings] drop. Everyone panicked over a sugar high.”
— A current Fox News staffer
Newsmax, which spent the months before last November’s election staffing up its network with D-list Trump hangers-on and ex-Fox personalities, pounced after Fox News enraged then-President Donald Trump and his followers when the network’s decision desk made an early (and correct) Election Night projection for Biden to win Arizona.
With the president’s supporters taking to the streets yelling “Fox News sucks,” Newsmax made a transparently concerted effort to not only reject Biden’s victory but to peddle and amplify Trump’s baseless and dangerous “Big Lie” that the election was “stolen” from him due to widespread voter fraud. The day all the networks and major media outlets declared Biden the president-elect, Newsmax—despite having no election decision desk—defiantly declared it would not name Biden the victor.
Pushing all-in on election lies paid immediate dividends for former right-wing newspaper reporter Chris Ruddy’s fledgling channel, and Ruddy—who also bills himself as a close Donald Trump confidant—wasn’t shy about tweaking Fox News in the media over the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel’s fall from atop the cable-news heap.
Despite his recent history of providing quotes touting Newsmax and slagging off Fox, the usually voluble Ruddy declined to comment for this story.
Post-election and through January, Fox News found itself in third place for the first time in 20 years. (The network, in the most recent full week, has since returned to the top of the heap in primetime and total day.) At one point, Newsmax’s biggest star Greg Kelly—a former Fox News host himself—defeated Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum head-to-head in the advertiser-friendly 25-54 age demographic, drawing headlines across the media world and prompting one Fox News staffer at the time to say the one-day ratings loss “scared them to their core.”
When Fox News announced in January, amid its then-slumping ratings, a complete revamping of its daytime lineup, notably demoting MacCallum from her 7 p.m. primetime slot to 3 p.m., Ruddy couldn’t help but gloat that his channel was responsible.
“The Fox is on the run,” he boasted. “The rise of Newsmax TV has caused a major shake-up at Fox News with news today that early evening host Martha MacCallum has been demoted to early afternoons.”
Ruddy, however, is gloating no more.
“We all knew their ratings surge wouldn’t last just because that’s how the news business is especially something as amateur hour as Newsmax,” a current Fox News staffer told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this month, Mediaite first reported that Newsmax had lost half of its audience since its November post-election high. Between the week ending Nov. 16 to the last week of February, the right-wing channel saw a 51-percent drop in total day viewership and a 63-percent decrease in its demo audience.
Kelly, who saw his viewership nearly top a million total viewers in November, was down to an average audience of 502,000 at the end of February. Even worse, considering his one-night demo victory over MacCallum, Kelly’s 25-54 ratings plunged by 63 percent.
“Mediaite published misleading information,” Newsmax spokesperson Brian Peterson told The Daily Beast. “They cherry-picked data using one major news week in November and compared it to one arbitrarily selected week in February, creating a data set that showed a fall-off for most of cable news, not just Newsmax.”
“Fox is still king of the conservative media. But Newsmax is a viable alternative.”
— A Newsmax insider
To be fair, as Peterson suggested, the three major cable networks have all experienced notable drops since the early post-election days, when the nation was enraptured by the all-encompassing drama surrounding Biden’s win and Trump’s refusal to concede. Their drops, however, are less significant than Newsmax’s.
Fox News, for instance, has only seen a 7-percent decrease in total day viewership and 13 percent in the demo since mid-November. MSNBC, as another example, is down 17 percent in total day audience and 28 percent in the demo.
“There’s normalization going on,” one Newsmax insider noted to The Daily Beast. “By mid-summer, Fox will be on top again. I’m watching Newsmax drift lower.”
The source added that “Trump gave them a moment” but what Newsmax now needs to do is “to hire talent with real names that audiences know.” Another insider, meanwhile, expressed pessimism over whether Ruddy can turn the ship around and truly be long-term competitive with the major cable-news stations.
“I’ve said this for a while that [Ruddy’s] over his head on financing,” said the source familiar with the situation, adding: “But when you put all these pieces together—this is a big operation, he’s hired a lot of people, there’s a lot of turnover. The advertising thing hasn’t changed dramatically in his favor. The ratings are down. He’s paying cable operators” for carriages on their systems—in contrast to Fox, which charges cable operators a subscriber fee.
The month of March has been even less kind to Newsmax.
Having already seen its 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. average total audience (the network’s peak day part) dwindle from 509,000 in January to 405,000 in February, Newsmax is only drawing 308,000 total viewers in March—an additional decrease of 24 percent. In total day, its overall viewership has tumbled all the way down to 178,000, a loss of 20 percent from the month before.
The March demo (ages 25-54) audience for 4-8 p.m. has also plunged 32 percent from February to just 47,000, while total day’s 25-54 demographic audience has fallen an additional 29 percent.
“I laughed when I saw the news about the drop,” a second Fox News staffer said. “Everyone panicked over a sugar high. Nothing about it was sustainable, yet people think it’s the new normal. Management panicked off of a small period of time and dismantled the entire lineup.”
A Fox News insider echoed those sentiments, noting that “all I’ve heard about Newsmax is that people at Fox now see them as a non-threat and essentially irrelevant.”
With Newsmax pulling only an eighth of Fox’s audience now when it drew one-fourth of the rival network’s viewership immediately following the election, CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter reported in his newsletter last Wednesday night that “Kelly is no longer nipping at Fox’s heels” and his demo win over MacCallum “was a fluke” in hindsight.
“They can no longer rely on the Big Lie to pull in Trumpers angry with Fox… [so] Newsmax now comes across as nothing more than a low-budget Fox News copycat.”
Newsmax, for its part, responded to Stelter’s remarks on its drop in ratings by pointing out that CNN itself has also seen its viewership plunge following the immediate post-election highs.
“As it turns out, Biden is also a very tame story for CNN as well, which has seen its own ratings collapse in recent weeks,” the network reacted, published on Newsmax’s website. Newsmax further noted that CNN has recently seen a 45 percent drop in total day viewership through March compared to the week after the election.
The network also pointed out that they are still showing double-digit growth compared to the fourth quarter of 2020 and said that Newsmax remains a top 25 cable network in total day audience. (For the week of March 7, however, Newsmax’s average total day audience of just 150,000 placed it 44th in cable.)
“Over the past few months, Newsmax has had a sudden rise, catapulting the independent network as a top cable news player,” the network added. “This fact has panicked not only CNN but Fox News, which has made dramatic changes in its lineup to counter Newsmax.”
(Last fall, for its part, Fox told the L.A. Times that it “regularly considers programming changes” and that these “changes are being made independent of any other ongoing matter” after host Melissa Francis was pulled off-air amid a gender pay dispute.)
This also reflects a widely shared suspicion within the network that since Newsmax rose to prominence in November, Fox News has allegedly tracked any fall-off in Newsmax’s ratings and pitched other media outlets to report on it.
The root cause of Newsmax’s decline seems all but obvious: They can no longer rely on the “Big Lie” to pull in Trumpers angry with Fox. And worse yet, in a right-wing media world where anti-Biden content doesn’t resonate as much, Newsmax now comes across as nothing more than a low-budget Fox News copycat, incessantly peddling the same exact “cancel culture” outrage bait about Dr. Seuss books and Pepé Le Pew cartoons.
In the waning days of Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, the dents in Newsmax’s armor began to show. After the Electoral College formally voted on Dec. 14, giving Trump 232 votes to Biden’s 306, Newsmax announced on-air that Biden was indeed the president-elect. A week later, amid legal threats from voting software company Smartmatic, the network forced several anchors to read a lengthy fact-check statement debunking its own baseless voter fraud lies.
At the same time, Kelly and other on-air Newsmax personalities still continued to push the falsehood that Biden “stole” the election—even after the violent Capitol insurrection incited by Trump in order to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election on January 6. And while Ruddy defended his network’s journalistic integrity and insisted it wasn’t peddling lies, hosts and guests claimed that the deadly riots were “very peaceful” and led by antifa activists pretending to be Trump supporters.
Perhaps the moment that it all came crashing to reality for Newsmax viewers, outside of Biden’s inauguration, was the early-February broadcast which featured anchor Bob Sellers literally fleeing the set when he couldn’t stop conspiracy-pushing MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell from blathering on about voting machines stealing the election from Trump. (Newsmax, much like other right-wing outlets and figures, is currently trying to avoid the sort of multi-billion-dollar defamation lawsuits that Smartmatic and the voting software firm Dominion have threatened and, in the case of Lindell and canceled Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs, actually filed.)
Despite issuing an on-air groveling apology to Lindell—one of Newsmax’s biggest advertisers—the following day, the damage was done when it came to the MAGA base. Fellow fringe channel One America Network declared war on Newsmax for “censoring” Lindell while Trump supporters called for a boycott of the channel.
Since then, Newsmax has appeared lost and adrift, basically just following the trends of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets by raging about so-called liberal cancel culture, all while trying to find something about Biden to inflame their viewers.
In what might be the saddest attempt yet at rage-bait content, Kelly last month hosted a panel discussion on how “dirty and disheveled” Biden’s elderly pet dog Champ is.
“Did you see the dog? I wanted to show you something I noticed. Doesn’t he look a little rough? I love dogs, but this dog needs a bath and a comb and all kinds of love and care. I’ve never seen a dog in the White House like this,” Kelly declared of the 13-year-old German shepherd, adding: “This dog looks like, I’m sorry, like it’s from the junkyard.”
Not to be outdone, however, Newsmax primetime host Grant Stinchfield took the whole “cancel culture” obsession to its inevitable conclusion.
“This is how cancel culture ends. This is the finale, right? It’s gotta be,” he said last Wednesday. “The banning of the Bible, canceling Jesus.”
Yet, despite the sinking ratings and current lack of direction, some folks associated with the network are still highly optimistic about Newsmax’s future.
“They received a lot of positive press over the last couple years of the Trump administration. Positive in the sense of sometimes beating Fox in the ratings. Just growing very quickly,” a network insider told The Daily Beast. “The ratings for Fox are definitely higher. But I think they have an audience for sure. Especially with Trump bashing Fox the way he did. For now, Fox is still king of the conservative media. But Newsmax is a viable alternative.”
That outlook seems contagious within Newsmax circles. Another insider declared utmost “confidence” in the network’s ability to hold its own against Fox News.
“Absolutely. No one has expressed worries.”
Diana Falzone was an on-camera and digital reporter for FoxNews.com from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.