Who’s Winning The Battle For Cable News Ratings?

…And does it even matter?

Few subjects inspire so much debate as to which Cable News Network you prefer:

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“You watch Fox!? That Nazi, bigoted platform for disgusting, reactionary Republicans!?”

“CNN!? You gotta be nuts! Fake news, just like Trump says! Just a bunch of wacky left-wing socialist BS!”

There’s little room for restraint, courtesy or deep thinking when it comes to criticizing someone’s preferred news source. My news is more accurate than yours. My journalists are less biased than yours.

It’s like arguing whether you should load a roll of toilet paper with the sheets feeding from the top or bottom of the holder, but while this household detail has caused many a marriage rift, it’s nothing compared to CNN versus Fox and the rifts it’s caused among Americans.

There’s no doubt we seek out news sources which confirm and feed off our preexisting beliefs and politics, and CNN and Fox have historically been the leaders using this content philosophy.

While the major traditional broadcast networks NBC, ABC and CBS try to work more neutrally and less biased in their very limited news programming (Sunday morning reports, roundtables and such), they’ve also created parallel cable news networks to play the same CNN and Fox “game,” NBC’s MSNBC and CNBC to name just two. While Fox also has her traditional broadcast network, she’s a relative baby compared to the Big Three, and primarily offers only local news through its affiliates, not on a network level.

So if you want to start a news network, just pick a side (liberal or conservative). It’s much sexier, and certainly more effective, in attracting a larger audience right away than trying to play it down the middle. Just throw in one or two journalists or guests now and then with opposing views to the network’s  overall  agenda, and you’re all covered for journalistic integrity. You’re now “fair and balanced.” And you just know that someone at CNN is kicking themselves for not coming up with that before Fox.

Let’s take a look at the cable news viewership numbers. and try to figure out what they mean. if anything. We’ll use 2018 year-end numbers for simplicity.

Fox News finished 2018 in first place in the cable news ratings race, delivering the highest prime-time audience in its 22-year history, according to Nielsen Media. Their prime time block of programming averaged 2.5 million viewers, an increase of 3% over 2017.

CNN, on the other hand, finished the year in third place, averaging just 990,000 viewers in prime time, a drop of 6% from 2017, meaning Fox had two and half times more viewers. MSNBC’s record-breaking year actually beat CNN, finishing in second place with 1.8 million viewers in prime time, almost double that of CNN.

These numbers reflect total viewership for their entire primetime block of 3 hours (8 PM to 11 PM Eastern and Pacific time, 7 PM to 10 PM Central and Mountain time). They do not reflect the success of their individual programs within that bloc, and this is important.

The top five programs were Fox’s Hannity with an average viewership of 3.275 million, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show with 2.881 million, Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight with 2.827 million, Fox’s The Ingraham Angle with 2.614 million, and Fox’s The Five with 2.380 million.

You’ll notice that CNN is nowhere to be seen in the top five. They’re down and out and stretched out on the canvas, and the ref has finished counting to ten. (I guess the public didn’t bite on CNN’s strategy of runny Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in prime time as news.) Very significant also in the above numbers is that four of the top five programs are Fox, but does this mean a lot more people are watching Fox? Definitely in the case of CNN, but perhaps not all that many more in the case of MSNBC.

You see, Maddow’s 2.881 million viewers is still very respectable compared to Fox’s top show with Sean Hannity at 3.275 million. (She still loses, but what’s a few hundred thousand between friends?) However, she still beat Fox’s three other top five programs (albeit not by much), so while a substantial number of liberal viewers are obviously still out there, they just watch Maddow and then turn MSNBC off.

Fox viewers, on the other hand, stick around and get as much Fox perspective as possible. So in addition to more eyeballs on Fox TV screens during prime time, those eyeballs stare far longer at Fox than any other cable news network. Fox viewers are clearly more informed, based on that Fox perspective, of course.

Perhaps Maddow’s woman/gay identity politics has a lot to do with her success (although she’s no dummy, just misguided), but it’s odd that in prime time, she still loses to Hannity, and no one else on MSNBC even comes close, nor CNN, despite so many liberal voters out there.

Hillary may have won the popular vote back when, and the Republicans lost their majority in the House during the midterms, but Trump and his party have been killing them on television.  (Daytime cable news ratings are a mixed bag, but in the TV business, it’s all about prime time.)

Arguments can be made about the validity of Nielsen’s numbers…or that liberals are watching Fox and conservatives are watching MSNBC “to see what the enemy is up to”…and that people don’t use cable news as their prime source of information anyway.

What’s not arguable is that CNN is a dead man walking, and that doesn’t make for great television.

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