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After the presidential election back in November, the cable news industry found itself in an unfamiliar place, wondering which direction to turn. For four years, the idea was simple, lucrative, and rewarding: cover everything President Donald Trump said, did, and tweeted. As a result, the industry broke records. Then reality set in that a new administration would soon take over. Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC had to balance a lame duck president, build up interest in a mostly dull Joe Biden, and then cover claims of voter fraud, the storming of the US Capitol and a second impeachment. Ratings then changed quickly and unpredictably. They certainly didn’t paint a clear picture of the post-Trump era in cable news.
While perhaps not an exact preview, the month of March provided a better indication of what to expect. Here were the top 10 viewed shows of the month:
- Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News: 3,227,000
- The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC: 3,035,000
- Hannity, Fox News: 2,821,000
- The Five, Fox News: 2,799,000
- The Ingraham Angle, Fox News: 2,204,000
- The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC: 2,044,000
- Special Report, Fox News: 1,968,000
- All In With Chris Hayes, MSNBC: 1,851,000
- Fox News Primetime, Fox News: 1,831,000
- Deadline: White House, MSNBC: 1,643,000
Cuomo Prime Time, at 14 overall, was CNN’s highest-rated show at 1,492,000 viewers, though CNN did have four programs that made the top 10 in the coveted 25-54 demographic. Like most of last year, CNN ranked second in the demo ahead of MSNBC but trailed at third in total viewership.
Rachel Maddow is an early winner of the Joe Biden era. While it’s unclear whether left-leaning coverage of Biden will draw eyeballs long term, I expect Maddow to do well either way.
In addition to coming in second overall, Maddow ranked No. 1 in the first quarter of 2021 with 3,604,000 viewers. While she likely won’t sustain that number or position, her drop in March kept her above 3 million per show. Whether for the pro-Biden talking points or the blame she still throws at Trump, there are viewers who turn on MSNBC when Maddow is on and turn off MSNBC when her show concludes. Look at the numbers. She draws viewers.
Considering all factors, I predict Maddow finishes 2021 in the two-four range, with second overall well in play. All signs point to Tucker Carlson winning the year.
The start of Trump’s presidency opened doors in cable news, as did Bill O’Reilly’s 2017 exit from Fox News. For decades, O’Reilly was the biggest draw in cable news, and those who battled for No. 2 lagged far behind him. With O’Reilly gone to the digital space, Sean Hannity first took the lead. However, in mid-2020, Tucker Carlson definitively emerged as the successor to O’Reilly, in O’Reilly’s former time slot.
Carlson more often than not draws the largest TV audience, and nearly every night generates the most discussion and subsequent impact.
Carlson’s rise occurred during Trump’s presidency, but it had less to do with Trump the person than Trump’s impact. The vast majority of hosts tied themselves to Trump, in a pro or anti way, and benefited greatly from that association. Carlson, though, attached himself to the cultural issues that rose aggressively while Trump was in office. Instead of leading with Trump, Carlson often led his show with social issues, such as the media’s constant accusations of white supremacy, cancel culture, the threat of Big Tech, and the country’s divide. Those are the issues that won’t go away post-Trump and might not post-Biden. Those are issues that the country had long bottled up, waiting for the signal to unload. Trump opened that door and left it open.
Cable news’ handling of digital media is perhaps the most intriguing story to follow. As I’ve argued, all three major networks must avoid the mistake ESPN made when it failed to produce quality digital content and therefore allowed Barstool and The Ringer to capitalize with nine-figure sales. The top digital news shows in listenership and impact come from outside the TV networks: The Ben Shapiro Show, Pod Save America, The Dan Bongino Show, The Daily, and NPR’s library.
It appears this push is underway. NBC has expanded its Meet the Press franchise to Peacock, which featured Morning Joe around the election. Fox News has gone all-in with Tucker Carlson’s new Fox Nation show, Tucker Carlson Today, promoting it widely across the TV network. FNC is also bolstering its podcast lineup, with new shows from Will Cain and Ben Domenech and expanding Trey Gowdy’s podcast. CNN’s approach is less clear, but the network’s content performs well across social media.
Continuing to develop the next wave of stars is equally crucial for all three networks. Hannity, Maddow, Carlson, Jake Tapper, Chris Cuomo, and Joe Scarborough are not going away — but with an increasing number of digital options and distractions, star power is needed throughout a daily lineup. And as proven by the O’Reilly-Carlson transition, there is always a “next.”
Donald Trump isn’t gone. He’s still around and will continue to be, but he’s not the president anymore. The next four years will not look like the past four. Like a long-running TV series, characters rise and fall as the years go on. Some shows fall off, while others succeed because of new, interesting and innovative storylines.