c-title pmc-u-font-size-20 pmc-u-font-size-38@tablet pmc-u-font-size-46@desktop-xl u-text-align-center@mobile-max u-letter-spacing-0025 pmc-u-line-height-normal u-line-height-45@tablet pmc-u-padding-t-1 pmc-u-padding-t-050@mobile-max”>A Look Back At 2021: Cable News Viewership Dropped — And There May Be More Disruption To Come (Analysis)
By Ted Johnson
More Stories By Ted
December 26, 2021 3:15pm
The year 2021 was one of tumult in the news biz: Chris Cuomo fired, Brian Williams’ surprise exit, Chris Wallace bolting for a rival. And that is not even getting to the daily headlines about Tucker Carlson’s vaccine doubts and distortions, the “great replacement” theory or January 6th false flags.
The past 12 months also have been one of tune out, as all of the networks saw a significant drop in viewers.
A lot of this was to be expected, as the news cycle moved on from the four-alarm fires of the Trump administration and the momentous nature of a presidential election year. Coupled with the onset of Covid-19 shutdowns, the year 2020 was a ratings bonanza for the news business, so it’s natural that there would be a bit of a come down.
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But will audiences return in 2022, with a midterm election on the calendar? Or in the next presidential election cycle?
All of the networks are investing in their streaming options, as Fox News added a Carlson show to its Fox Nation subscription streaming service, NBC News is pumping more money into hiring for its channels, including The Choice from MSNBC, and CNN is prepping the launch of CNN+. The move of Wallace from Fox News to the CNN subscription service may tell you a bit of where things are headed, even if it’s a bit of the wild west right now in the measurement business.
Fox News again was the top rated cable news network, overcoming an early-in-the-year wins by CNN and MSNBC in various viewership categories. The network was also the top cable network overall among total viewers in total day and primetime. (ESPN took that title among viewers 25-54).
CNN, meanwhile, said that even with the overall audience declines in 2021, the period still marked its second most-watched year ever, second only to last year. MSNBC said it was the top cable network among African American viewers for the third straight year. Both networks also ranked in the top five of cable networks overall among total viewers, including in total day and primetime.
Here’s some highlights:
The Tucker Carlson factor. Tucker Carlson Tonight was the top show on cable news, drawing an average of 3.2 million viewers, followed by The Five, Hannity, The Rachel Maddow Show and The Ingraham Angle. Carlson was tops in the 25-54 demo last year, so the trend was there that he would take the top spot in total viewers.
As the leading figure on the network, Carlson has been given an even higher profile, with a show on Fox Nation. Even straightforward, live news events got the Tucker Carlson treatment. When Joe Biden gave a major primetime speech in March from the White House, coinciding with Carlson’s primetime hour, Fox News added a “live Tucker reaction” box to the lower right corner of the screen, as if the host was trolling the president.
But with Carlson’s ratings dominance has also come furor and fallout. His Fox Nation documentary, Patriot Purge, advanced the “false flag” theory of January 6th, drawing condemnation from figures like Liz Cheney and the ADL, while Wallace and Bret Baier reportedly objected to network executives. Two conservative contributors, Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, resigned over the special.
This has all come as Fox News has leaned more heavily on opinion, bumping newscasts in favor of talking heads, shoring up the audience on the right and the Trumpist base. Its panel show The Five was the only non-primetime show to make the top five.
Greg Gutfeld’s late night right. Fox News slated Gutfeld’s show as a right-leaning alternative to other late-night offerings, and the network’s decision to bump a newscast from its 11 p.m. ET slot paid off. Gutfeld drew an average of 1.7 million viewers, beating The 11th Hour with Brian Williams and Don Lemon Tonight. Last year, the slot’s previous occupant, Fox News at Night, drew an average of 2.01 million but trailed The 11th Hour. Gutfeld has drawn higher numbers than other late-night hosts save for Stephen Colbert, but it’s not an apples to apples comparison: Gutfeld airs at 8 PM PT in the west, meaning that he’s not going head to head with those shows. But Fox News has been successful in pitching Gutfeld! as the sole conservative comedy-opinion show in a landscape that leans left.
AC360. The network’s top show was Anderson Cooper 360, with an average of 1.26 million total viewers and 318,000 in adults 25-54. For that spot, Cooper edged out CNN Tonight/Cuomo Primetime, the slot now vacant following the firing of Chris Cuomo.
Other highlights from CNN: Its coverage of the January 6th siege on the U.S. Capitol drew an average of 5.2 million — setting a record as its most watched day among total viewers.
The new series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy averaged 2.05 million total viewers, its second highest performance for its Original Series unit. The network promptly ordered season two and plans to launch a new series, Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico, on its CNN+ platform.
Rachel Maddow. Once again Maddow was tops in total viewers and the key demo, which is why there’s so much speculation about what happens to her show if she scales back her schedule, as has been reported. No official announcement has yet been made.
After Maddow, MSNBC’s top performer among total viewers is The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Nicolle Wallace’s Deadline White House, meanwhile, averaged 1.6 million, more than any other cable news daytime program (when the measurement is 9 AM to 4 PM ET). Fox News’ Outnumbered topped in the 25-54 demo.
Among other news networks, Newsmax’s Greg Kelly Reports averaged 406,000 total viewers, enough to make the top 50 (at #50), while CNBC’s Squawk Alley drew an average of 65,000 viewers in the adults 25-54, enough to rank it in the top 50 in that demo (also at #50).
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