Ailes Says Ratings Doomed Carlson, but Her Show Was Beating Rivals and Growing

While Unspectacular, 'Real Story' Deliveries Were Up Year-Over-Year

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Gretchen Carlson attends the 2016 Miss America Competition last September in Atlantic City.
Gretchen Carlson attends the 2016 Miss America Competition last September in Atlantic City. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Fox News Chairman-CEO Roger Ailes said Wednesday that "disappointingly low ratings" ended Gretchen Carlson's tenure at Fox News Channel, not retribution for spurned sexual advances as she alleged in a lawsuit.

But Nielsen live-plus-same-day data shows steady if unspectacular growth for the show, and better numbers than any of its rivals on other news networks.

In the second quarter of this year, for example, Ms. Carlson's 2 p.m. program averaged 1.15 million viewers and 183,000 members of the all-important news demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds, which works out to a 0.15 rating. Her deliveries in the demo improved on her year-earlier performance, rising 16% from the second quarter of 2015 to average 157,000 adults 25 to 54.

Ms. Carlson's show also beat time-slot rivals on CNN (651,000 viewers, 164,000 in the demo) and MSNBC (471,000 viewers, 102,000 demo).

Ratings for "The Real Story" demonstrated similar year-over-year gains in the first quarter, as adults 25 to 54 tuning in averaged 224,000, up 23% over the first quarter of 2015. A sequential decline was seen across the cable news landscape between the first and second quarters.

Over the course of 2015, "Real Story" averaged 176,000 members of the apposite demographic, up a smidge from 172,000 in 2014.

While "Real Story" is Fox News Channel's third lowest-rated program, beating out only the 5 a.m. table setter "Fox & Friends First" and the wee-small-hours-of-the-morning "Red Eye," Ms. Carlson's show not only outpaced its direct competition at CNN and MSNBC but also met its ratings guarantees to advertisers.

The Nielsen data also appears to run counter to Mr. Ailes' argument that her show had been "dragging down the afternoon lineup." Lead-out "Shepard Smith Reporting" saw its second-quarter ratings soar 20% from the year-ago period after posting a 7% gain in 2015.

If "Real Story" managed to fend off its rivals for the better part of its two-and-a-half-year existence, the show's advantage over its opposite number at CNN had begun to dwindle. After topping "Newsroom" by a margin of 48,000 demographically relevant viewers in 2014, "Real Story's" advantage fell to 36,000 adults 25-to-54 last year and just 19,000 in the second quarter of 2016. The show's winning streak ended abruptly in June, as "Newsroom" out-gunned "Real Story" by a margin of 4,000 viewers.

Mr. Ailes' disregard for a show that consistently beat its cable news competition comes as Fox Business Network continues to produce infinitesimal deliveries. The financial news channel's 2 p.m. show "The Intelligence Report with Trish Regan" averages 106,000 viewers, of which only 16,000 are members of the 25-to-54 set. That translates to a meager 0.01 rating.

Distribution stats can't explain away those "Intelligence Report" deliveries. Fox News Channel is available in just over 91 million households, while Fox Business is in 84.2 million homes.

After Ms. Carlson filed her legal complaint Wednesday in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mr. Ailes issued a brief statement in which he said the decision to not re-up Ms. Carlson's contract was a reflection of her show's underperformance. "This is a retaliatory suit for the network's decision not to renew her contract, which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup," he said.

Ms. Carlson's attorneys on Thursday volleyed back at Mr. Ailes, issuing a release that touted "Real Story's" 23% year-to-date gains in the demo. "Ailes' claim that Gretchen Carlson was terminated because of bad ratings is demonstrably false," attorneys Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman wrote.

A Fox News spokesperson on Thursday reiterated Mr. Ailes' stated rationale for sending Ms. Carlson packing. "As Roger had said in his statement, her low ratings are the reason why her contract wasn't renewed," the PR rep noted in an email exchange. Fox News also said that "Real Story" never managed to scale the heights of its immediate predecessor, "America Live with Megan Kelly," and that ratings in the 2 p.m. slot have improved since Ms. Carlson left the network.

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