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Chris Hayes vs. Bill O'Reilly at 8 O'Clock: What's Demographics Got to Do With It?

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Yesterday, April 1st, MSNBC's Chris Hayes graduated from weekends at 8 a.m. to weeknights at 8 p.m. opposite the undisputed king of the time slot Bill O'Reilly at Fox News. While MSNBC is not banking on Hayes stealing O'Reilly Factor viewers any time soon, they are betting on the demographic shift that helped the Democratic Party win in 2012; and will make same sex marriage, immigration reform, and even possibly gun safety winnable in the near future. These shifts (and The Rachel Maddow Show) have paved the way for Chris Hayes' wonkfest to go prime time.

Just as the Republican Party needs to change to recapture a majority of votes, so will Fox News in order to capture the viewers of the future. See the following study on Millennials and the Silent Generation from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

It is not just that Hayes' viewers skew younger, but they are skeptical digital natives who consume news from multiple sources, and can Google the "truthiness" of pundits' claims while watching the show. If they still even have a TV. Hayes had a paltry 139,000 viewers' ages 25 to 54 last month, according to Brian Stelter of the New York Times blog Media Decoder. But, eyeballs on the TV screen are not the only measure of a show's success. "Uppers" (fans of "UP with Chris Hayes") are watching online, sharing clips, and engaging on twitter in an intense way. Fans have even given the show's pastry tray a twitter account. TV Ratings are not capturing the value of that intensity, loyalty, engagement or online views and shares.

MSNBC Head Phil Griffin knows this. In June 2012 he gushed to Tommy Christopher at mediaelite.com:

I can't tell you how impressive it is. You know, MSNBC is a better place because of Chris Hayes. It's about depth, it's about analysis. That's what we are. In a world where, you know, a 140 character Twitter explosion... what's the rebound to that? It's depth. We own it! Nobody else is doing that we're doing. And Chris Hayes is at the center of it.

Political news watchers have not suddenly become more earnest beings yearning to be better informed -- it is just much easier to be. After having access to the news 24/7 online, they already know the talking points and are for looking for in depth analysis, a fresh take, and that elusive special sauce called authenticity. Hayes is giving them something they can't get from reading even the most "in the know" blog -- intelligent humans debating real issues. The "Uppers" shun the stale Sunday morning shows' talking heads reciting talking points, for Hayes getting "into the weeds" on policy with folks who actually work on the issue, whether it's Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), a longtime gun safety advocate who's husband was tragically killed and son severely injured in the 1993 Long Island Railroad shooting, or a Wal-Mart worker sharing their personal experience in a segment on labor policy. Likewise, the journalists who appear on UP like Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, or E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post have something thoughtful to say or an original insight. The ones that don't, never seem to be at the table again.

As for Fox, aside from the onward march of the nerds, and the obvious issue that at least 40% Hannity and O'Reilly's audience are 65 or older (according to this chart by Pew) there is another more subtle trend they should be worrying about. For years, like clockwork at 7:59 p.m. my mom used to yell from the kitchen to my Dad in the living room "Dick, it's eight o'clock, turn Bill O on!" Now, my widowed 80-year-old Dad and his cohorts in his "55 and older" community are diversifying their 8 p.m. viewing.

Obama did more than retake the White House in 2012. His win made some viewers doubt the "No Spin Zone." It was a shock to my Dad's set that Fox pundits missed the mark in such big way. No matter how much they blamed the liberal media or trotted out "expert" Karl Rove, it didn't change the fact they were wrong in their predictions, and reluctant to acknowledge reality. It was like finding out that a trusted friend lied to you, in a very public way. Dad now watches Pawn Stars at 8 p.m., and sometimes even Rachel Maddow after that. When I offered to switch to Hannity last night he said, "No, she's good. He's always ranting about something." O'Reilly's recent ragefest at Alan Colmes, was also not received well here in Retirementland. For some, it seemed to be a tipping point where Bill O went from standing up to the elite in defense of the little guy, to a bully who could not admit to being wrong. Word on these golf cart filled streets is "he is getting stale."

My experience in this 55 and older microcosm can't be extrapolated out to everyone in this demographic, but I can't help but wonder if we are seeing this sentiment partially reflected in the ratings. According to this piece in The Huffington Post:

Shep Smith, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity all saw huge drops in the demo from the same point in 2012. Hannity fell a staggering 35 percent from 2012, and O'Reilly fell 26 percent. It was the two men's worst performance in the demo since 2006 and 2008, respectively.

I'm not saying Chris Hayes is going to take over the world this week. To some, his show might sound like the adults in the Peanuts Cartoon talking to Charlie Brown "wa-wa-wa, wa-wa." But in 2013 and beyond, where more people have access to unlimited news sources and fact checking is a click away, it seems that some, in all age groups, are developing appetite for at least a little informed debate and authenticity, while passing on political red meat.

The Fox News format where Bill or Karl or Hannity insisting that something is true, makes it true (as Monica nods her head in agreement), could be slowly evaporating. While the viewer who looks to Fox as their sole news source is never going away completely, the Fox echo chamber does not seem to have the same gravitational pull it used to. MSNBC might just be poised to give Fox a real run for their money.