Los Angeles Times
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

NEW YORK — The stream of negative headlines for President Donald Trump about his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia and the firing of FBI Director James Comey is shaking up the cable news ratings race.

Last week, MSNBC won all five weekdays over CNN and Fox News in prime time among the coveted advertiser demographic, according to Nielsen data. The NBC-owned network led by "The Rachel Maddow Show," now the No. 1 show in cable news with an average of 2.9 million viewers last week, became the go-to destination for viewers transfixed by the unfolding investigation into the White House scandal.

The story is having the opposite effect at Fox News, where conservative commentators were more skeptical about the significance of the nearly daily leaks related to Trump's handling of Comey's dismissal and reports that the president shared classified intelligence with Russian diplomats during a White House visit.

Fox News won the week among total viewers, averaging 2.209 million, compared with 1.857 million for MSNBC and 1.426 million for CNN. But Fox finished behind CNN and MSNBC among viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic most important to advertisers who buy commercial time on the network.

Even with the third-place finish last week, Fox News still ranks first among viewers and in the 25-to-54 age group in May. But the race has tightened considerably. Through May 21, Fox News was averaging 443,000 viewers, followed by MSNBC's 420,000 and CNN's 402,000. In May 2016, Fox led CNN by 79,000 viewers and MSNBC by 160,000 in the category.

Here are some reasons for the slip in Fox News' ratings:

—TRUMP-RUSSIA A TURNOFF FOR FOX NEWS VIEWERS

The third-place finish is a rarity for Fox News, as its loyal viewers turn to it as a conservative alternative to other TV news outlets.

Excluding weeks that carried coverage of Democratic conventions, Fox News has not finished third in the 25-to-54 category for a full week since Dec. 28, 2008, when the trial of Casey Anthony in the murder of her daughter was a dominant cable news story for MSNBC and CNN's sister channel, HLN.

Over time, Fox News will learn if last week's third-place finish is a bump in the road after shuffling its prime-time lineup or a shift in the cable news landscape where it has been the perennial ratings leader since 2002. The negative news for Trump last week did not play in its favor.

"The sheer cascade of events last week that made Trump look so bad, it was simply too much for that audience and they didn't want to tune in to the news last week," said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN. "Fox News better hope that that's the case."

—BILL O'REILLY IS A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW

The third-place finish in the demographic for Fox News comes a month after the April 19 firing of its top-rated personality, Bill O'Reilly, following revelations that $13 million in settlements had been paid out to women who accused him of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

Ratings held up for the most part in the first few weeks after Fox replaced O'Reilly at 8 p.m. Eastern time with Tucker Carlson and moved its late-afternoon panel show "The Five" to 9 p.m., followed by "Hannity" at 10 p.m.

But the new lineup could not withstand a news cycle that was likely tough for its Trump-supporting conservative viewers to watch. Klein believes the Fox audience likely missed O'Reilly, who would have been able to make the Trump-Russia story more palatable for Fox viewers by explaining it rather than dismissing it as "media hysteria" as the channel's hosts often did last week.

"Bill was able to pull off the image of a guy who called them as he saw them and could make sense of a bewildering world for Fox News viewers," said Klein. "Tucker is more of a prosecutor."

Fewer viewers are coming to Fox News in the 9 p.m. hour for "The Five," a loose conversation about the day's events with a happy hour atmosphere designed for the 5 p.m. Eastern time slot where it originated. Fox News viewers may still be expecting more substance in prime time.

Last week, Fox News correspondents from Washington appeared on "The Five" to report developments on the White House's problems with Russia and Comey, only to have two of the show's irreverent co-hosts, Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld, mock the story's significance (Watters called it "a boring scandal").

"The Five" was pre-empted on Monday as Fox's breaking news anchor, Shepard Smith, came on to report on the terrorist bombing at Manchester Arena in England. The attack outside of an Ariana Grande concert, where 22 people were killed, dominated cable news coverage across all three major channels.

—MEANWHILE MSNBC SURGES

A prolonged scandal could continue to propel MSNBC to higher ratings over the long haul. The network is up more than 100 percent in May, compared with a year ago. The Department of Justice's appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians means the story is not going to end anytime soon.

Anti-Trump viewers have been flocking to programs where they can see hosts — on late-night comedy as well as the news — who share their frustration or anger over the administration. But when Trump isn't the story, the ratings shift.

On Monday, a night when Trump was not the big story, Fox News was in first place in prime time based on preliminary ratings, while CNN led in the 25-to-54 age group. MSNBC finished third in both categories.