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Dead Tree Alert: Is Fox News a Lame Duck?

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In the print edition of TIME this week, my column looks at Fox News, which became the top cable news channel almost exactly concurrent with the first Bush inauguration, and now needs to figure out what it’s going to be come 2009:

Fox is still the top-rated news channel, but there are signs it’s plateauing. Its ratings started to lag in 2006, and in February, CNN’s prime time (boosted by several presidential debates) beat Fox among 25-to-54-year-olds for the first time since 2001. (CNN and TIME are owned by Time Warner.) Maybe even more galling, the network has lately faded in the ephemeral category of buzz. MSNBC–with far fewer viewers–has been the political-media obsession of the 2008 primary, largely because of feuds between the Clinton campaign and the network for its perceived pro-Obama bias.

Ratings shmatings: if a Rupert Murdoch network cannot dominate the field of ticking off the Clintons, that has to sting.

So what’s the problem, exactly?

It would be fair to ask whether Fox needs to change anything, given that it’s still far and away the most popular news network and is likely to stay that way for a while. The first signs of Fox malaise are there, though, both objective (it suffered its first ratings slump in 2006, and lost a major advertising demo to CNN last month for the first time fince 2001) and subjective (the sense, to this critic anyway, that it’s listless, repeating itself and, as I wrote about its coverage of Jeremiah Wright, that it’s still figuring out how to cover the new political environment).

Fox News’ fate isn’t a simple political equation, as in bad news for Bush = bad news for Fox. In a way, its really the same kind of aesthetic problem that faces any super-hot TV program that’s getting long in the tooth. That is: when you become a hit by perfectly embodying the zeitgeist—as Fox did with its lusty, Starship Troopers-like journo-aggression after 9/11—then you run the risk of seeming like yesterday’s news when that zeitgeist starts to change. [Update: This was, by the way, CNN’s precise problem before Fox News. Coming into its own through the Gulf War, it looked and felt like the future of news, but by the time Fox emerged and then eclipsed it, it was stagnant.]

Fox’s problem isn’t just that Bush will no longer be president in a year, though it is inextricably identified as the in-house network of the Bush White House; it’s that, if it doesn’t evolve, it will start looking dated, like an avocado refrigerator from a ’70s kitchen renovation. The politics of its pundits aside, as a critic, I can’t help but look at Fox sometimes these days—with those patriotic videogame graphics and its heated coverage of al Qaeda audiotapes—and think, “Wow, that looks so 2002.”

All that said, if any network can make this transition, it’s Fox; after all, when Bush was elected, people like we were saying that it (and Rush Limbaugh et al.) would be hurt because it would be harder to stir up conservative rage. What Fox taps into is something more permanent and not strictly political—the message that it’s standing up for its viewers against the smug, mainstream media elites.

In that sense, I’m sure my column only helps them. You’re welcome, guys!