My monthly cable news ratings column is one of my favorites pieces to write. This month’s focus, November 2020, was the industry’s most important month to date, capping off an election that drew unprecedented interest.
Let’s first dive into the top-rated shows, 1-10:
- Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, 5,095,000
- Hannity, Fox News, 4,982,000
- The Five, Fox News, 3,780,000
- The Ingraham Angle, Fox News, 3,776,000
- The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, 3,437,000
- Special Report, Fox News, 3,3038,000
- The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC, 2,852,000
- The Story, Fox News, 2,820,000
- Deadline: White House, MSNBC, 2,643,000
- The Beat With Ari Melber, MSNBC, 2,563,000
Tucker Carlson and future of the industry
I am not a believer in the narrative that post-Trump cable news will suffer a collapse akin to the one we saw with ESPN, though the numbers will go down overall.
The impact will be felt most among the shows and personalities who have pivoted entirely to Trump since 2015. And there were many of them, both pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Trump isn’t going away. He may even announce he’s running for 2024 in January. But even if he does, the interest in him won’t be as in-demand as it has been the past five years until at least 2023.
Of the hosts who experienced large viewership increases during the Trump years, Tucker Carlson did so without attaching the president to his brand. Instead, Carlson’s show focuses on the atmosphere and effects of Trump’s presidency, which aren’t going away and don’t need Trump in the news to continue.
Above all, Trump’s presidency shined a light on the problems with our country’s media, entertainment, cultural double standards, racial conversations, tech leaders, and corporations. Carlson explores these issues nightly in his monologues, catapulting him into a neck-and-neck ratings race with Sean Hannity. In October and November, Tucker Carlson Tonight became the first cable news program to average over 5 million viewers for two consecutive months.
Carlson will feel the benefits of the Trump years long after Trump leaves the White House. He isn’t alone. Ben Shapiro also brought similar topics to light on the digital side, and his audience continues to grow.
I expect other news personalities to elevate in the coming two years, whether that means a star becomes a superstar or a rotation member becomes a star.
I explained in my mailbag that once the big post-Trump story is established — whatever they may be — we will see talents breakout both on TV and online:
“As the media grows more fragmented with alternatives online and growing niche interests, there’s an increasing number of viewers who latch onto a personality merely because of a topic. That host then builds a brand around said topic and covers it daily from all angles.”
CNN’s big month
Though CNN doesn’t have a top 10-viewed TV program (Cuomo Prime Time‘s 2,540,000 ranks 13th), its numbers spiked dramatically in November. CNN topped MSNBC in both total day — 1,781,000 to 1,589,000 — and primetime — 2,802,000 to 2,660,000 viewership.
CNN drew large numbers on Election Day and the three days following. The viewership has since remained strong, particularly in total day. Its recent viewership may surprise monthly readers who see Fox News and MSNBC routinely stomp CNN in viewership, but this was to be expected. During elections and breaking news periods, CNN receives the largest spike of the three. While interest in the election aftermath is dwindling, voter fraud, COVID news, and Joe Biden’s cabinet are keeping CNN’s numbers from dropping
This tells us that during the highest days of news interest, non-cable news viewers choose CNN. There are millions of Americans who tune in on Election Night, the few days and weeks after, and don’t come back for four years. For the most part, such viewers choose CNN.
There are a few reasons for the turnout. CNN has maintained its brand name, despite its viewership loss. It benefits from a default factor. The average Americans who don’t follow cable news think that Fox News is for the right, MSNBC is for the left. They believe CNN is the “news” network, even though we know this is not the case. CNN also maintains a high Q-rating by airing in all major airports and is more likely to appear in restaurants and bars than Fox and MSNBC.
Come spring, or perhaps sooner, CNN will drift below Fox News and MSNBC once again. CNN can maintain its lead over MSNBC in the coveted 25-54 news demo, however.
There’s also a belief that president Jeff Zucker is on his way out and that AT&T is looking to sell CNN. Any prospective buyer or new parent company should keep these major swing cycles in mind.
For Jeff Bezos, whom Fox Business mentions as a potential buyer, CNN would be a high-reward investment. But CNN’s next president or parent company must find the network a new identity with President Donald Trump departing the White House. Trump helped all cable news, and without him, CNN’s top personalities have no chance of drawing the ratings of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Rachel Maddow.
In the morning, CNN is unable to set a tone. Fox News and MSNBC have powerhouses in Fox & Friends and Morning Joe. New Day doesn’t compete. In November, New Day drew just 842,000 viewers, compared to F&F‘s 1,811,000 and Joe‘s 1,705,000.
November was an expected success for CNN.
The Five‘s run: Primetime and the morning shows dominate the cable news discussion. Yet The Five, airing when half the country is not home watching TV, draws primetime viewership. For the second straight month, The Five was the third-most watched show on cable news, behind Carlson and Hannity.
It’s also one of the industry’s best watches, with a mixture of news, debate, and light banter. I noted on Election Night that Dana Perino, a co-host, is having a career year as a hybrid for Fox’s news and opinion divisions.
Fox should, however, expand the show’s fifth chair rotation. It has a deep bench of personalities who could breakout and click with the audience on The Five.
Nicolle Wallace, a face of MSNBC. There’s a drop-off in notoriety at MSNBC after Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough. The network hopes Nicolle Wallace can fill the gap. MSNBC has given her a push this year, expanding her show Deadline to two hours, even bumping Chuck Todd’s MTP Daily to 1 p.m. for it.
It’s too early to tell if the investment has been well spent, but November indicates that it is. Wallace’s Deadline jumped in the top 10 to 9th overall with 2,643,000 viewers.
Newsmax’s spike: In October, Newsmax TV ranked 78 in total day and 73 in primetime among all of cable. This past month, it rose to 29 and 38, respectively.
Greg Kelly Reports led the way with a monthly average of 630,000, 41 overall. That’s up from 120,000 the month before.
It should be one of the more interesting media stories to follow in 2021.
A prediction: For the reasons above, either Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro will walk into Election Day 2024 as news media’s biggest draw.