The full cable news ratings for October 2020 are in. Here are the key numbers and my thoughts.
The top 10:
Tucker Carlson's record-breaking run
Joe Rogan cashed in for $100 million in 2020, but no one in media has elevated their status like Tucker Carlson.
At 5.4 million viewers, Carlson has broken the record for the highest-rated cable news show ever. Tucker Carlson Tonight is also the first primetime cable news program since September 2008 to average one million viewers in the coveted 25-54 demographic.
Carlson's success is fascinating. He emerged as a top star on TV by hosting a cable news show that is not built around the president. Instead, Carlson focuses on the country's leading social issues: Black Lives Matter, racial issues, nationwide riots, and the media.
"It is all such a lie,” Carlson responded to the media's reaction to indictments in the Breonna Taylor case. “It is a demonstrable lie. Statistics don’t back it up. The experience of your life, no matter what color you are, doesn’t back it up.”
Carlson appeals to so many because his perspective on social and racial issues likely reflects the opinions of many Americans. However, many cable news channels and news hosts fear being canceled or labeled a racist, so they often ignore this side of the conversation.
In real life, Carlson's views are reasonable. On Twitter and in the media, they are deemed demonic.
This doesn't mean Carlson is always right or that a liberal like Rachel Maddow is always wrong. It means Americans are divided, and viewers on both sides deserve representation.
Carlson's record-month doesn't take away from Sean Hannity or even prove he is No. 1.
Nightly, Carlson and Hannity battle for first and are separated by a minimal number of viewers. In October, Hannity also averaged over 5 million viewers, outperforming popular broadcast TV programs The Bachelorette, The Conners, Celebrity, and Family Feud.
This year, Hannity has won the first and third quarter ratings — 4.5 million tuned in during the third quarter, setting an all-time record — while Carlson won the second and is favored to win the final.
Neither Carlson nor Hannity has replaced the stardom that Bill O'Reilly enjoyed for decades. Perhaps O'Reilly would top both of them if he were still on Fox News. I think he would. But O'Reilly hasn't worked at Fox News for years, leaving Carlson and Hannity, in whatever order, to claim the top two spots.
Shepard Smith's rough start at CNBC
Former Fox News star anchor Shepard Smith has had a rough first month on CNBC.
CNBC hired Shep Smith to bolster its 7 p.m lineup. His new show The News averaged 343,000 viewers in its first week and has dropped every week since. It has now been on air a month, and The News averages around 278,000 viewers, dead last in cable news at 7 p.m. Smith's CNBC program loses the head-head battle against a repeat of Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox Business, which drew 305,000.
Smith's totals at CNBC falls far below his former demo rating on Fox News, where his show routinely pulled over a million viewers.
Now, there is context to his move.
Smith is a news anchor. As ratings show, viewers are less attached to news programs and hosts. Top opinion personalities are more valuable outside their network than straight news hosts, except perhaps for Bret Baier, whose Special Report draws numbers comparable to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
CNBC also cannot compete with the top three cable news channels: Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. CNBC is just not a destination for the industry's top stars.
However, because Smith is one of CNBC's highest-paid talents, his show must be able to beat a repeat on Fox Business. If it can't, it's an L.
Around the industry, there are conflicting views on what will happen to cable news after the election. Bill O'Reilly says it's "done." I disagree. Our country's divide spans well beyond Trump and Biden.
There will still be some dip after November. That's expected and normal after a heated election. Morning TV should hold up though.
Morning shows are habit viewing. Regardless of the top story, Americans tend to tune into the same hosts and segments every day. That's a positive for Fox & Friends and Morning Joe, which garnered 1,865,000 and 1,576,000 viewers respectively this October.
CNN remains uninvolved in the race, which affects network viewership for the rest of the day. Morning TV sets the tone for the programs that follow. Once ESPN figured out Get Up, the rest of its lineup increased. New Day on CNN, however, draws only 757,000 viewers.
Primetime is the top priority, but mornings shouldn't be far behind. With Jeff Zucker's future up in the air, CNN's must establish a better morning show.
Overall, CNN rates well in the 25-54 demo, topping MSNBC in both total day and primetime viewership. Mornings shows, though, are a different matter. In October, New Day trailed Morning Joe by an average of 86,000 viewers.
CNN should explore bringing in outside talents to spice up the program. Fox signed Will Cain away from ESPN for Fox & Friends Weekend, which now rivals the weekday show in buzz and ratings.
If CNN could improve the numbers for New Day by 7-10%, the impact would last until midnight.
Other notes from October
Total day viewership
Fox News: 2,278,000 total viewers, +57% (428,000 in 25-54, +76%)
MSNBC: 1,467,000 total viewers, +29% (243,000 in 25-54, +36%)
CNN: 1,378,000 total viewers, +78% (361,000 in 25-54, +90%)
Fox News: 4,900,000 total viewers, +83% (971,000 in 25-54, +139%)
MSNBC: 2,700,000 total viewers, +38% (475,000 in 25-54, +45%)
CNN: 2,462,000 total viewers, +98% (709,000 in 25-54, +16%)
Follow Bobby Burack on Twitter @burackbobby_.