Fox News, powered by its strong conservative bent, is the most popular national cable news network. But in liberal Greater Boston, the brand has become a liability for the local Fox affiliate.
WFXT (Channel 25) said Thursday it is changing the name of its local “Fox 25 News” newscast to “Boston 25 News.”
The station will still broadcast Fox shows and refer to itself as Fox 25 in most cases, including on its building signs and on-screen visuals during non-news broadcasts. But “Fox” will come out of the name of the newscast, which is locally produced and independent from the cable network, starting April 24.
The change comes amid lagging ratings and after station research dating back more than two years found that 41 percent of Boston-area news consumers believed the local Fox 25 newscast leaned conservative.
WFXT general manager Tom Raponi said he believes the station has produced impartial local journalism in recent years. (WFXT was owned and operated by the Fox network until 2014, when it was acquired by Atlanta-based Cox Media Group as part of a trade involving multiple stations.)
Raponi attributes the conservative perception among viewers to Fox News’s national reputation — a problem compounded by an increasingly polarized political climate.
“The perception of what our TV news station does is not what we do. They perceive us to be part of the Fox News family,” Raponi said. The Fox 25 News brand, he said, “wasn’t built for this environment.”
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.
In the March rating period, WFXT trailed WHDH (Channel 7), its only 10 p.m. competition, in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic on weekdays.
Also in March, WFXT tied for third of five broadcasts in the 11 p.m. weekday time slot, according to data provided by WHDH. In April, WFXT is winning the 10 p.m. contest with WHDH and is tied for third at 11 p.m.
WFXT expects to remain a Fox affiliate for at least the duration of their long-term agreement. Raponi declined to say how long the contract runs.
The rebranding decision was made locally, and other Cox stations with Fox affiliations — in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Florida — are not taking similar action.
Massachusetts leans liberal and is one of just two states in the United States where every county voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the presidential election. Meanwhile, Fox News’s opinion shows are conservative, and hosts generally support President Trump.
WFXT news director Mike Oliveira said that because more than 50 percent of Massachusetts voters are registered as independent, viewers want news content that is not perceived as politically tilted in either direction.
Raponi said the station was not motivated to change the newscast name by public relations crises at Fox News in the past year, as former chief executive Roger Ailes and prime time host Bill O’Reilly have faced sexual harassment accusations. Management had been considering the name change since shortly after the Cox takeover, Raponi said.
“It’s not that it’s a bad brand; it’s just that it’s not ours,” he said.
A change seemed like a possibility during the Super Bowl, which was carried on WFXT, when an advertisement for the newscast referred to it simply as “25 News.” Ultimately, the station settled on “Boston 25 News.”
Since Cox acquired WFXT, the station has seen several well-known on-air talents leave the station.
Yet the station has increased the number of on-air reporters it uses from six to 22, Oliveira said, while investing millions of dollars in a set redesign and new equipment.
Meanwhile, the market has recently grown more competitive.
In January, NBC launched its own station in the market, separating from longtime affiliate WHDH (Channel 7), which responded by expanding its news team. ABC affiliate WCVB (Channel 5) and CBS’s local station, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) are also in the mix.
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications professor, said the newscast name change is an opportunity “to improve the brand image” in a competitive market.
“Will this have a major impact? No,” Berkovitz said. “But it can’t hurt.”
It remains to be seen whether eliminating “Fox” from the newscast’s name will be enough to entice dismissive viewers, especially because the station will still carry Fox content and branding. Raponi said the new “Boston 25 News” name will be marketed across the region this spring.
But winning the local competition depends mostly on the quality of the broadcast, which could involve doubling down on investigative work and further growing the newsroom, he said.
The name change “is not a magic bullet. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow with a 7.0” rating, Raponi said.