Newsmax, OAN vie for Trump loyalists as Georgia counts votes


FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump departs on travel to West Point, New York from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 12, 2020. REUTERS/Cheriss May

(Reuters) - As Georgia officials began tallying votes on Tuesday that will determine control of the U.S. Senate, upstart cable news networks promoted by President Donald Trump competed for new audiences.

For One America News Network (OAN) and Newsmax, the Georgia elections offered a chance to capitalize on gains since the presidential election in November. For weeks, the outlets aired baseless theories about election fraud in an effort to be number two among conservative viewers behind dominant cable news channel Fox News.

Last year, Trump ramped up his criticism of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Corp-owned Fox News and began to promote Newsmax and OAN instead, helping the two outlets to the right of Fox grow. On Dec. 30 Trump tweeted: "Watching @FoxNews is almost as bad as watching Fake News @CNN. New alternatives are developing!"

However, the president still conducted his only two post-election interviews on Fox News.

A DIVIDED CONSERVATIVE AUDIENCE

Georgia’s unusual runoff for two Senate seats will determine if Republicans hold power in the chamber. Preliminary results showed Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had jumped to early leads against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

OAN’s Tuesday night coverage included part of an interview with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a segment about Trump campaigning for Loeffler in Georgia.

Host Stephanie Hamill said of the Georgia runoffs: "There’s really no enthusiasm behind the Democrats for the most part" and described the Republicans as "running against socialists."

Newsmax sent Washington-based correspondent Logan Ratick to Georgia polling places, and later to a viewing party with Republican candidates. Commentators included former Georgia Republican lawmaker Jack Kingston, who said he felt nervous that Democrats did more to promote voter turnout than Republicans.

The network aired an ad that showed Trump praising Newsmax and urged viewers to watch the channel to "bypass the big media" and "get the truth about Trump."

Fox, which has invested heavily in its own system for analyzing voting behavior, opinions and preferences, is the only one of the three networks that can make its own election projections. The network’s live coverage from Georgia began Sunday and included two nights of a two-hour special on the runoffs. Fox will air overnight election coverage from 1 a.m. until 4 a.m. EST.

Courting a divided conservative audience will be key to keeping viewers engaged after the U.S. presidential election, which helped Newsmax and OAN attract record audiences. According to Nielsen data, Newsmax ended the year averaging 277,000 viewers per day in December, down from post-election peaks, but up from 60,000 before the election.

OAN President Charles Herring said the network’s audience swelled by more than 40% in the fourth quarter over the third quarter. The network does not subscribe to Nielsen, and Reuters was unable to confirm the numbers.

Fox News’ audience was far bigger, averaging 1.9 million viewers per day in 2020. While it dominated cable news in primetime, with 3.6 million viewers on average, its total day ratings have slipped below AT&T Inc’s CNN since the election.

The question remains whether viewers who tune in this week will stick with the upstarts when Trump leaves office, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

There will be an audience for their brand of right-wing coverage, he said. "I think the question is how large? How rapt? Does it ever get old?"

(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Kenneth Li, Aurora Ellis and Lincoln Feast.)

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