The way much of America sees things, political polarization is a bad thing. Washington politicians still believe that the citizenry want nothing as much as bipartisanship in the nation's capital. Centrist efforts such as No Labels base their entire appeal on a lack of extremes. Even Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was built largely on a promise of overcoming the nation's political divisions.
But polarization has remained and, no doubt, grown in the fertile soil of economic tribulation lately. And that has been a very good thing for at least one prominent media brand: Fox News. The leading cable news network and one of its most prominent hosts, Sean Hannity, are celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the birth of Fox News and its association with the once-obscure radio talk-show host.
Fox News is flattening the competition from CNN and MSNBC more convincingly than ever, ratings-wise. And the success of Fox News' stalwart appeal to its right-leaning viewers recently prompted MSNBC to stop all pretense and throw its marketing toward its own, but left-leaning, viewership base. MSNBC lately has been doing better in the ratings. Meanwhile, CNN, still nominally trying to occupy the mushy middle, has struggled.
And while Keith Olbermann has left MSNBC for Current, and CNN has juggled ratings-compelling personalities to build its schedule around, the prime-time lineup at Fox News has been remarkably stable for years: Hannity at 9 p.m. ET (paired for years with the now-departed Alan Colmes), sandwiched by Bill O'Reilly at 8 p.m. and Greta Van Susteren at 10 p.m.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. Hannity hints in a New York Times profile that he may leave Fox News in 2013, when channel head Roger Ailes plans to step aside. The article also describes what has made Hannity so successful:
Hannity, 49, who calls himself a Reagan conservative, has taken to heart the former president’s famous speech about displaying “bold colors” instead of “pale pastels.” He rarely if ever wavers from his views and campaigns relentlessly against President Obama. “With all of the most successful cable news shows, you know what you are getting every night — they have a clear identity and mission,” said Dan Abrams, a former general manager of MSNBC and a former 9 p.m. host there. “There is probably no host on cable whose identity and mission is clearer than Sean Hannity’s.” Viewers have rewarded that clarity. “Hannity” had an average of 2.1 million viewers in the first nine months of the year, 528,000 of whom were in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers covet — a subgroup that numbered as many as CNN and MSNBC had put together.
Clearly, with a volatile 2012 election campaign just getting into full swing, Fox News will be serving up plenty of red meat over the next year. Lately, Ailes has called for a bit of moderation in the network's tone. But that hasn't affected Fox News' aggressive overall persona, which remains a big commercial success: Fox News is going back to cable distributors soon with plans to ask for still-higher carriage rates.
Indeed, Fox's continued strength seems as ineveitable as the next budget-ceiling deadline. Whether it's a Republican or Democratic administration in Washington, partisanship is always in fashion.