The full cable news ratings for the third quarter of 2020 are in. Here are the key numbers and my thoughts.
The top 10:
- Hannity, Fox News, 4,454,000
- Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, 4,351,000
- The Five, Fox News, 3,483,000
- The Ingraham Angle, Fox News, 3,430,000
- The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, 3,302,000
- Special Report, Fox News, 2,811,000
- The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC, 2,459,000
- The Story, Fox News, 2,376,000
- All In, MSNBC, 2,020,000
- 11th Hour, MSNBC, 2,012,000
Hannity is No. 1
For about two decades, Bill O’Reilly was in Sean Hannity’s way on top of cable news. While Hannity is now in a nightly ratings battle with Tucker Carlson — he is often No. 1.
In Q3 2020, Hannity recorded the highest-rated quarter for a cable news show in history at 4,454,000. Tucker Carlson Tonight previously held the record at 4.3 million in Q2 2020. For context, Hannity‘s average topped ESPN’s NBA conference finals.
Combining his Fox News primetime show and national radio program, which trails only Rush Limbaugh, Hannity’s reach leads all media.
Hannity isn’t unpredictable like O’Reilly; he’s not the thought-provoker Carlson is; and, his worldview isn’t rare. Yet, his distinguishable energy, sarcasm, and positivity work now more than ever. Especially the positivity.
In this divisive climate, a show can’t go 20 minutes without depressing viewers. It’s unavoidable with a global pandemic, riots, a divide among police and citizens, and hatred between political parties. This includes Sean Hannity. That said, by incorporating the positives of America’s history and potential future, he comforts his viewers.
Furthermore, his mockery of Joe Biden and the Democratic party is more humorous and fun than his colleagues’ serious criticism and warnings. This is equally true compared to MSNBC’s and CNN’s coverage of the Republican party and President Donald Trump.
In times of unrest, Americans seek escapes; a marketplace rapidly diminishing in options.
Relatability remains the most underrated appeal in media. Hannity is the cable news host who viewers want to have a drink with. At the peak of COVID-19, he pushed for having a beer and hotdog at Yankee stadium. He invites viewers into his life and past.
If Hannity doesn’t top his record in Q4, or isn’t eclipsed by Carlson, the record will hold for the foreseeable future.
Rachel Maddow’s importance to MSNBC
In a recent Outkick Media Mailbag, I was asked the value top cable news hosts have over potential replacements. The platform vs. the talent.
Here is a snippet:
“Primetime stars do matter. Sean Hannity, who is the biggest draw in cable news, took each Friday off in August. Those Fridays averaged 3.5 million viewers. In August, Hannity led all cable news with an average of 4.7 million.
“For MSNBC, Rachel Maddow is that difference-maker. Last month, Maddow drew 3.1 million viewers, fifth in cable news. MSNBC’s next highest-viewed program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, came in with 900,000 fewer viewers.
“Look at the Daily Show: Trevor Noah, who took over for Jon Stewart, tanked the ratings, quality, humor and interest.
“That said, a star is not irreplaceable if replaced by another star. Bill O’Reilly, for decades, was the biggest draw in cable news. His former 8 p.m. slot, with Tucker Carlson, continues to dominate with over 4 million viewers. It took some time, but Carlson ultimately rose to stardom.”
This brings us to Rachel Maddow. Even when she’s not campaigning for more Trump-Russian-collusion, she draws well over 3 million a night. And that’s only a fraction of her value.
MSNBC struggles to create stars. Aside from Maddow and Joe Scarborough, the depth chart is lackluster. (The network is currently trying to elevate Nicolle Wallace into that discussion.) Thus, the channel’s performance in the coveted 25-54 demographic.
MSNBC draws well in total viewership — miles ahead of CNN for second. But in the demo, the Rachel Maddow Show merely ranks top 10 at 504,000, fifth highest of the quarter. The next MSNBC show is found at 12 (348,000), the Last Word. However, much of its average comes following Maddow and decently maintaining her audience.
Unlike MSNBC, Fox News and CNN’s demo ratings are not disproportionately tied to a single host. For Fox, Carlson (who won the Q3 demo), Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and The Five ranked one-four, respectively.
At CNN, Chris Cuomo (7), Anderson Cooper (10), and Erin Burnett (11) were all close. Overall, CNN beat MSNBC in total day demo viewership, 206,000 to 172,000. In the same 25-54 measurement, CNN only trailed MSNBC by 1,000 in primetime — 312,000 to 311,000. How does that add up? MSNBC airs Rachel Maddow at 9 p.m. ET.
There’s an expectation around the industry cable news’ skyrocketing run comes to a halt post-election.
Sure, presidential elections always send temporary eyeballs to cable news. Especially one as divisive at Trump-Biden. But that’s not the only reason for the unprecedented interest — all three channels are significantly up year-over-year.
As a talking point, coronavirus is not going away. The vaccines are already political. The riots in the streets don’t have an end date. Our country’s divide on racial topics is growing. And a re-election or new president ensures nationwide interest.
Clearly, a win for Trump benefits all cable news. He’s the most consistent needle-mover in the country. He’s made for TV, banter, and headlines. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is boring.
Oddly, CNN needs a Trump victory most. If Trump were to lose, all the news programs across the networks would take a hit. But Fox News’ primetime lineup and Maddow can sustain interest either bashing or propping up Biden. CNN’s identity is anti-Trump. Chris Cuomo doesn’t work any other way.
It is hard to find evidence to support Bill O’Reilly’s prediction that — regardless of the outcome — cable news is “done.” Though, a drop is expected. Additionally, political media is rising across digital platforms.
Other notes from the quarter
CNN: 895,000 viewers – up 43%; 206,000 in 25-54 – up 41%
Fox News: 1,834,000 viewers – up 35%; 314,000 in 25-54 – up 41%
MSNBC: 1,168,000 viewers – up 28%; 172,000 in 25-54 – up 32%
Primetime, 8-11 p.m. ET
CNN: 1,336,000 viewers – up 51%; 311,000 in 25-54 – up 39%
Fox News: 3,625,000 viewers – up 50%; 612,000 in 25-54 – up 75%
MSNBC: 2,061,000 viewers – up 29%; 312,000 in 25-54 – up 31%
From 06/29/2020 – 09/25/2020, Fox News topped broadcast TV in weekday primetime ratings:
- Fox News — 4,025,000
- NBC — 3,568,000
- CBS — 3,091,000
- ABC — 2,525,000
- Fox — 1,629,000
MSNBC changed lineup in mid-August
During Q3 2020, MSNBC revamped its daytime lineup.
Nicolle Wallace’s Deadline: White House expanded to two hours — 4-6 p.m. ET. Chuck Todd’s MTP Daily moved to 1 p.m.
Follow Bobby Burack on Twitter @burackbobby_.