Cable News Viewership Statistics - Featured Image
By Milos Djordjevic | April 29, 2021 | 0 Comments

33 Fascinating Cable News Viewership Statistics Explaining the Shifting Trends in 2021

When major events occur, people traditionally turn to television for real-time updates.

Many such events took place in 2020 — from the global pandemic and racial riots to an exciting and uncertain presidential election. And as these cable news viewership statistics will show, all three major news networks ultimately benefited from these developments.

In this article, we’ll examine how the top three cable news networks fared in 2020. We’ll also look at their ratings in 2021’s first quarter to see if the political shift in the US had any impact on them. Finally, we’ll investigate how they reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and its severity.

Top Cable News Viewership Statistics (Editor’s Choice)

  • 16% of Americans primarily get their news from cable television.
  • CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all had record-high viewership in 2020.
  • Fox News has been the highest-rated cable news network for 19 years.
  • As of 2020, Tucker Carlson Tonight is the most watched cable news show ever.
  • Fox News’ 2020 election night coverage was the most watched in cable news history.
  • 2020 was CNN’s most successful year since its 1980 launch.
  • Despite the financial crisis, CNN grew its ad revenue in 2020.
  • MSNBC is the least distrusted of the three major cable news networks.

General Cable News Viewership Trends

1. The three major cable news networks had record-high viewership in 2020.

(Variety)

As the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, most people turned to television news for up-to-date, trustworthy information. And while broadcast TV saw a gradual viewership decline, that wasn’t the case with cable news networks. In fact, they posted record-high numbers.

Amid the pandemic, CNN grew its viewership by a staggering 83% year-over-year. MSNBC was up 23% from 2019, and Fox News saw a 43% viewership increase. What’s more, Fox News ended the year as one of the top 10 networks — broadcast and cable — in TV viewership rankings for the advertiser-preferred 18–49 demographic. And although CNN didn’t earn a spot in the top 10, it still managed to boost its viewership in this age group by an impressive 95%.

2. They also ranked as the most popular cable channels for the year.

(The Wrap)

As most other networks took ratings hits, Fox News (3.6 million primetime viewers), MSNBC (2.1 million), and CNN (1.8 million) ended up as 2020’s most watched cable networks overall. Despite the lack of live sports, ESPN still managed to rank fourth with 1.5 million viewers. However, the Disney-owned network’s primetime TV ratings saw a 16% decline from 2019.

Entertainment and documentary channels make up the rest of the top 10. With approximately 1.4 million viewers each, TLC and HGTV ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. These were the only two non-news networks that saw viewership growths in 2020. Hallmark Channel, TBS, History, and Discovery Channel round out the top 10. Even with the overall declines, they are the sole remaining cable networks to have attracted more than 1 million primetime viewers.

3. 16% of Americans primarily get their info from cable news, demographics reports show.

(Pew Research Center)

According to a recent survey, 16% of Americans cite cable news as their primary source of political information. The same percentage of media consumers get their news from local TV, while only 13% said broadcast TV is their go-to information source. Interestingly, despite the massive cable news ratings gains, 18% of people say they get their news from social media.

4. Most cable news viewers are aged 55 and over.

(Statista)

Older news consumers make up the largest part of US cable TV viewership, statistics show.

In 2020, 34% of people aged 55–64 and 35% aged 65 and over said they regularly watched cable news. For comparison, 27% of people in the 45–54 age group, 24% in the 30–44 bracket, and just 15% of those aged 18–29 watch cable news broadcasts every day. Although some networks skew slightly younger, the average age of cable news viewers is in the 55–65 range. Unsurprisingly, 42% of Gen-Zers and young millennials (18–29) never watch cable news.

5. BBC News is the most trusted news channel in the US.

(Reuters Institute, BBC)

Despite being UK-based and having limited availability, BBC News is the most trusted news channel in the US. Reuters Institute’s research reveals that 56% of Americans find the network trustworthy, putting it right behind local TV news broadcasts (60%) in this respect.

The US isn’t an isolated case, though — BBC News ranks among the most reliable news brands in countries worldwide. According to some estimates, it is also the most watched news channel in the world. BBC World News, the network’s international news channel, reaches more than 114 million weekly viewers and is currently available via cable in more than 200 countries. The corporation also co-owns BBC America in the US, but the channel doesn’t air news content.

Fox News Viewership and Demographics

6. Fox News has been the most watched cable news channel for the last 19 years.

(Business Wire)

The channel’s winning streak started in January 2002, at the height of the country’s War on Terror and immediately following the US invasion of Afghanistan. Since then, Fox News has consistently been the highest-rated news channel — in both total viewers and the 25–54 target demographic. Its popularity and impact have been so immense that NewsCorp excluded it from its 2018 sale of media assets to Disney and decided to retain ownership of the network.

7. The network broke three cable news ratings records in 2020.

(Reuters)

Cable news networks have been around since 1980, but Fox News set three new milestones in 2020. In the year of the global pandemic and a much-anticipated US presidential election, the network averaged 1.9 million daytime viewers and 3.6 million primetime viewers — the figures no other news channel had ever recorded. Besides being the top news channel in the USA, Fox News also celebrated its fifth consecutive year as the most watched cable channel overall.

8. Tucker Carlson Tonight is the most watched cable news show ever.

(Poynter, Newsweek)

Though his on-air comments have caused much controversy and led to pullouts by several high-profile advertisers, Tucker Carlson became part of cable news history in 2020.

His evening show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, now officially tops the list of the highest-rated cable news shows with an average of 4.33 million viewers in the year’s second quarter. In September, the show also had the highest monthly viewership in the history of cable news. Each night that month, more than 5.3 million people tuned in for Carlson’s commentary on the latest events.

And that’s not all — Nielsen’s cable news ratings report reveals that Tucker Carlson Tonight was the first cable news show to attract more than 1 million viewers in the 25–54 group since 2008.

9. The network’s 2020 election night coverage was the most watched in cable news history.

(Cynopsis Media, Broadcasting & Cable)

With an average audience of 13.6 million — 4.9 million in the coveted 25–54 demographic — Fox News had the most watched election night coverage ever on a cable news channel. Not only did it beat competing cable networks, but it also had significantly more viewers than any other mainstream media outlet, ratings show.

On that night, Fox News had high ratings in most so-called “red” states that voted Republican. However, it also had unusually high viewer figures in some of the Democrat-leaning “blue” states. Looking at Fox News viewership by state on election night, the network had the most viewers in Alaska, New Hampshire, Wyoming, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

10. Fox News is equally popular across all age groups.

(Public Opinion Strategies)

Back in 2016, several esteemed publications wrote about the network’s fast-aging viewership as one of its biggest problems. However, recent Fox News viewer demographics show that people from all age groups watch it equally. The majority (30%) of viewers fall into the 50–64 bracket. Another 25% are aged 18–34, 24% belong to the 35–49 age group, and 20% are 65 and over. With these statistics in mind, the average age of Fox News viewers is likely in the 50–60 range.

11. The channel is predominantly watched by white, middle-class Americans.

(Public Opinion Strategies)

Fox News is a Republican-leaning network, so it’s no surprise that white Americans account for 74% of its total viewership. But the most watched news channel in America also attracts viewers of other ethnicities — 10% of its audience is Black, 9% Hispanic, and 7% from other groups.

As for the economic status, 44% of the network’s viewers self-describe as middle-class. Another 25% say they belong to the working class, and 19% identify as upper-middle-class citizens. Only 8% of Fox News viewers say they live below the poverty line, while 3% are “well to do.”

12. 29% of the network’s viewers have at least a college degree.

(Public Opinion Strategies)

According to cable news television demographics, Fox News viewers aren’t as “uneducated” as some widely accepted narratives portray them. While 35% of the network’s viewers only have a high school education or less, another 35% have attended some college or are currently attending it. Furthermore, 17% have a university degree, and 12% have a postgraduate degree.

13. 53% of Fox News viewers identify as Republicans.

(Public Opinion Strategies)

Unsurprisingly, more than half of the network’s viewers identify as Republicans. However, Fox News television viewership statistics also show that 23% of the viewers describe themselves as Democrats and 18% as Independents. As for their general political attitudes, 55% identify as conservative, 30% as moderate, and only 12% as liberal.

14. An equal share of Americans trusts and distrusts Fox News.

(Pew Research Center)

Over the years, the public has questioned Fox News’ credibility numerous times. After all, it was the network that endorsed former President Donald Trump, and many blame it for its role in the spread of fake news. It’s no surprise that Americans were divided when asked to assign Fox News an accuracy rating in 2020 — 43% found the network trustworthy, and 40% didn’t.

As expected, the level of trust in the network primarily depends on the respondents’ political affiliation. While a sizable 65% of Republicans consider Fox News a credible information source, only 23% of Democrats share their opinion. Similarly, 75% of people who identify as conservatives trust the network, whereas just 12% of self-identifying liberals feel the same.

CNN Audience and Demographics

15. 2020 was the most successful year in CNN’s 40-year history.

(CNN Press Room)

After years of ratings declines, CNN had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2020.

Thanks to the positive TV viewership trends, the oldest cable news network drew its largest audiences yet. With 1.14 million total viewers, 1.99 million weekday primetime viewers, and 1.82 million weekly primetime viewers, CNN posted the highest viewing figures since its 1980 launch. Having also achieved record-high ratings in the 25–54 demographic, CNN increased its market share and firmly established its position as one of the most watched cable channels in the US.

16. CNN won the election week in ratings.

(Los Angeles Times)

Fox News may have won the election night, but CNN ended up dominating that entire week.

Between November 2 and November 8, CNN averaged 5.9 million primetime viewers compared to Fox News’ 5.7 million. Although the win was relatively narrow, CNN’s election week television ratings gave the network a rare victory over the NewsCorp-owned channel. What’s more, CNN finished the week as the second most watched channel in primetime behind NBC (6.3 million).

17. Despite the financial crisis, the network’s ad revenue increased.

(The Wall Street Journal, Variety)

As most media outlets saw significant declines in advertiser dollars, CNN’s advertising revenue went up in 2020. AT&T, the network’s parent company, didn’t disclose precisely how much CNN made from selling ad time. However, experts initially estimated the revenue would reach $667 million, marking a 15% increase from $580 million in 2019. At the height of the pandemic, they updated their estimates to $619.2 million — a smaller but by no means insignificant 6.5% rise.

18. CNN attracts younger viewers than other cable news channels.

(Pew Research Center)

With 20% of viewers aged 18–29, CNN skews much younger than other cable news networks. Of the eight most influential media outlets in the US, only The New York Times has more followers in the 18–29 age group (29%). CNN demographics show that 37% of viewers are aged 30–49, 26% fall into the 50–64 bracket, and the remaining 17% are aged 65 and over.

19. CNN’s audience is also predominantly white.

(Pew Research Center)

Like Fox News, CNN attracts mostly white Americans. However, the racial gap is noticeably smaller — 52% of the viewers are white, 21% are Black, and 15% are Hispanic. Cable news viewership statistics also reveal an interesting difference in the gender makeup of the two network’s audiences. Namely, whereas Fox News has more male (55%) than female (45%) viewers, women make up the majority of CNN’s viewership (54%).

20. 40% of CNN’s viewers have a college degree.

(Pew Research Center)

CNN has a relatively educated audience, with 40% of them having obtained a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree. Meanwhile, 32% of the channel’s viewers have attended some college, and 28% have a high school education or less. The network’s audience is better-educated than that of Fox News, but contrary to some claims, the differences aren’t that significant.

21. CNN International is available in 200 markets worldwide.

(CNN Press Room, Reuters Institute)

The network isn’t only popular in the US. Launched in 1985, CNN International is now available in more than 200 regions and territories worldwide and reaches some 370 million households and hotel rooms across the globe. Although international TV viewership stats are hard to come by, CNN International has long stood as one of the world’s most popular news channels.

In 2020, the channel ranked as one of the most respected news sources in Bulgaria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the three main Scandinavian countries. CNN Türk, the Turkish version of the channel, is currently one of Turkey’s most trusted news brands, with 72% of local news consumers citing it as reliable. Additionally, the network ranks among the top five news sources in countries across Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Cable News Viewership Statistics - Remote Controller

MSNBC Viewership and Statistics

22. The Mary Trump interview in July 2020 gave MSNBC its best ratings ever.

(Los Angeles Times)

The July 16 interview then-President Donald Trump’s niece gave to Rachel Maddow helped MSNBC achieve its highest ratings for a regularly scheduled broadcast since its 1996 launch. With 5.24 million viewers, the hour-long interview was also the second most watched program on US television that week, behind America’s Got Talent on NBC — MSNBC’s sister network.

23. The network’s ratings primarily depend on politics.

(The Wall Street Journal)

Analyzing news network ratings in 2020, media experts noticed an interesting pattern — out of all three major cable news networks, only MSNBC’s ratings depend on big political events.

Namely, the network saw massive gains following the 2016 election, as the public’s interest in political news and President Donald Trump reached a high. This helped MSNBC improve its ranking and leave the competing CNN far behind. With COVID-19 — a non-political story — in focus throughout the first half of 2020, MSNBC quickly fell behind its competitors. Yet as the US election started approaching in late summer, the cable news channels ratings improved.

All this is to say that viewers turn to MSNBC for political coverage and commentary. As soon as public interest shifts to non-political stories, they abandon MSNBC for other news channels.

24. MSNBC’s demographics are similar to Fox News.

(Public Opinion Strategies)

Although they operate on opposite ends of the political spectrum, MSNBC and Fox News attract similar audiences. Like its right-wing competitor, most of MSNBC’s viewers (44%) self-identify as middle-class citizens. They are predominantly white (70%), with 19% of Black and 8% of Hispanic viewers. Furthermore, their age structure is almost the same — 31% aged 50–64, 25% in the 18–34 group, 19% in the 35–49 bracket, and 24% aged 65 and over.

25. The network has a better-educated audience than its competitors.

(Pew Research Center)

Out of the three major news-oriented cable networksdemographics, MSNBC’s is the most educated. Research shows that 45% of MSNBC viewers have at least a college degree, putting it ahead of both CNN and Fox News. As for the rest of the viewership, 27% have a high school education or less, while 28% have attended some college or are still attending it.

26. It’s also the least distrusted of the three main cable news networks.

(Pew Research Center)

Looking at MSNBC vs. Fox News trust ratings, one would assume that Americans find the latter more credible. While 43% trust Fox News and 47% find CNN reliable, only 34% say the same about MSNBC. But on the flip side, 40% distrust Fox News, 32% say CNN is unreliable, and 26% find MSNBC untrustworthy — making MSNBC the least distrusted of the three networks.

Cable News Networks and COVID-19

27. 56% of Americans believe cable news networks have exaggerated their COVID-19 coverage.

(Pew Research Center)

The COVID-19 pandemic gave cable television news ratings a significant boost, but Americans were watching critically. And more than half (56%) believe the three major news networks have exaggerated their news coverage. Fox News is the worst offender, with 79% of Americans accusing it of sharing incorrect information about the virus. CNN ranks second with 54%, while MSNBC is in third place, with just 35% of people saying its COVID-19 reporting was inadequate.

28. Harvard scientists accused Fox News of spreading false information about the virus.

(HKS Misinformation Review)

It’s not just the US public — scientists have also accused America’s highestrated news channel of downplaying the pandemic’s severity and engaging in yellow journalism.

A Harvard Kennedy School review found that Fox News commentators had misinformed the public and spread conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin. What’s more, they may have endangered viewers by accusing CDC officials of having “hidden interests” and promoting untested — and potentially harmful — COVID-19 treatments early into the pandemic.

29. Fox News significantly reduced its COVID-19 coverage in late summer.

(Editor and Publisher)

Between late July and early September 2020, the most watched news channel in America drastically reduced its COVID-19 coverage. Out of 1,800 minutes of early-morning programming media experts analyzed, only 150 minutes (8.3%) focused on the pandemic — and much of it was in the sensationalist tone the network is known for. To make matters worse, the pandemic’s death toll hadn’t reduced by this point, with more than 1,000 new deaths daily across the US.

For comparison, CNN dedicated 627 minutes (34.8%) of its program to COVID-19 coverage during this period. That’s despite the fact the network nurtures a unique brand of infotainment that aims not to overwhelm viewers with too much negative news. The approach apparently works, as CNN’s television ratings saw a massive boost amid the pandemic.

30. Female physicians were seriously underrepresented among medical experts interviewed by cable news networks.

(American Medical Association)

The pandemic shed light on another major problem — gender disparity in cable news.

Of the 117 interviews with health experts on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC in May and June 2020, only 17 were with female physicians. Interviews with women accounted for 14.5% of all physician appearances — very few, considering they make up 40% of the academic community.

Cable News Viewership Trends in 2021

31. Fox News’ winning streak ended in January 2021…

(Forbes)

As the power in the US shifted from the Republican to the Democratic Party, there were also major shifts in cable TV news viewership, statistics show. After leading the pack for 19 years, Fox News fell into third place with 2.46 million primetime viewers on average. Meanwhile, CNN averaged 2.68 million viewers, and MSNBC had 2.55 million watching in the 8–11 PM slot.

Fox News also lost its lead in total daily viewers. While CNN led with 1.9 million, MSNBC was second with 1.6 million, leaving Fox News in a distant third with 1.3 million people watching. According to experts, two big political events contributed to this shift — Donald Trump’s exit and the January 6 US Capitol riots. Fox News’ primetime TV ratings also suffered due to its early announcement of Joe Biden’s election victory, which angered many Trump supporters.

32. … But the network’s ratings recovered in February.

(Deadline)

The NewsCorp-owned channel quickly regained its primetime lead. In February 2020, Fox News averaged 2.47 million evening viewers, leaving MSNBC (2.19 million) and CNN (1.69 million) behind. But by all other metrics, Fox News still hadn’t restored its past glory. MSNBC led in total day viewers, and CNN topped the coveted 25–54 demo in both day viewers and primetime viewers. Fox News ranked second in all categories, a slight improvement from January.

33. Two rising networks are endangering Fox Newsmarket share.

(Fabrizio, Lee & Associates)

While it’s still the most popular news channel among Republicans, Fox News is facing serious competition from two rising networks — Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN).

Both networks support former President Donald Trump and have repeatedly aired his claims in which he contests the results of the 2020 presidential election. According to a March 2021 survey, 13% of Republicans watch Newsmax daily, and 26% watch it weekly. For comparison, 27% are daily Fox News watchers and 48% watch it at least once a week. OANN is rapidly approaching the two with 9% of daily and 10% of weekly viewers among GOP voters.

Cable News Viewership Statistics: In Conclusion

Despite the hardships the whole world faced, 2020 was a banner year for cable news networks.

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all saw record-high ratings and experienced massive viewership growths — both in total viewers and their target demographic. However, cable news viewership trends are changing following the US presidential election and the resulting political power shift.

While MSNBC and CNN have both come out of this relatively unscathed, Fox News is at a crossroads. After 19 years as the most watched of the three networks, it has lost a lot of its Republican-leaning audience. Although it’s still dominating the primetime, up-and-comers like Newsmax and OANN are threatening to steal its Trump-supporting viewer base. As such, it will be interesting to see if the network manages to extend its lead for the 20th consecutive year.

FAQ

When did cable TV become popular?

Experiments with cable TV in the US started in the mid-1950s. The first original programs were produced in the early 1970s, following the expansion of cable TV to major cities nationwide.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that cable television became popular in US households. Several new networks began airing via cable in the 1980s, including the movie channel HBO, the all-sports network ESPN, and — perhaps most significantly — the 24-hour music channel MTV.

CNN, the world’s first news channel, started broadcasting in 1980. According to historical cable news viewership statistics, the channel’s popularity rose in the early 1990s, thanks to its live coverage of the Persian Gulf War. With the increased availability across the country and the launch of numerous specialist channels, cable TV has been very successful ever since.

What is the most credible news source?

Globally, 56% of people cited search engines as the most trustworthy news source in 2020. While 53% of global media consumers still trust traditional media, only 41% feel the same about news websites and other online outlets. Finally, 35% say social media is a trustworthy source.

As for specific media outlets, 60% of Americans trust their local news, 56% find BBC News reliable, and 52% believe what they read in The Wall Street Journal. Cable news networks don’t fare so well — Fox Newsaccuracy rating in 2020 stood at 43%, CNN’s at 47%, and MSNBC’s at 34%. On the other hand, MSNBC is the least distrusted of the three, with 26% of Americans finding it unreliable. This puts it in a much better position than CNN (32%) and Fox News (40%).

What percentage of Americans watch TV news?

Despite numerous claims about traditional media dying out, an impressive 45% of Americans still get their political news primarily from television. Of that number, 16% watch local TV, 13% watch the news on broadcast networks, and 16% watch cable news channels.

For comparison, 25% of Americans turn to news websites for the latest information, 18% use social media for news updates, and 3% get their news from print newspapers. So even though online media is quickly catching up, television is still the preferred information source in the US.

How many people watch cable news?

Although 16% of Americans say they prefer getting their political news from cable TV, that doesn’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of news channels’ viewership.

For the exact numbers, it’s best to view the official figures. According to Nielsen’s cable news ratings from the 2020 election week, close to 10 million people on average watched the three major cable news channels — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Combined, this marked a 72% viewership increase year-over-year. Fox News had by far the most watched election night coverage, while CNN won the entire week, with an average of 5.9 million primetime viewers.

What is the most watched news channel in America?

Fox News experienced some hardships early in 2021, but it wasn’t enough to dethrone it as America’s most popular news network. The channel finished 2021’s first quarter in the top spot, averaging 2.5 million primetime viewers. Although this was a sizable 27% drop from Q1 of 2020, it still marked the 77th consecutive quarter that the network outdid its two main rivals.

According to cable news ratings for the first three months of 2021, Fox News is still lagging behind in total daily viewers. In that respect, it currently ranks third behind MSNBC (#1) and CNN (#2). And while Tucker Carlson Tonight remains the most watched show in its 8 PM time slot, it’s no longer the most watched show overall. MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show currently holds that title with 3.6 million viewers compared to Carlson’s 3.4 million.

What is the most watched news channel in the world?

It’s impossible to say precisely which news channel attracts the most viewers globally. However, several sources claim that BBC News — along with its international version, BBC World News — holds the title of the most watched news channel in the world. Besides reaching 114 million weekly viewers in 200 territories, BBC News is one of the most trusted news brands worldwide.

According to research, 56% of Americans cite it as the news source they trust the most. It ranks as the second most trustworthy information source in the US after the local news. Additionally, it is currently among the most credible news sources in countries across the globe — #2 in South Africa, #3 in Australia and Ireland, #4 in Singapore, and #5 in Sweden and Canada.

How many viewers does CNN have?

In 2021’s first quarter, CNN averaged 1.9 million evening viewers, putting it in third place behind Fox News (2.5 million) and MSNBC (2.3 million). With 1.35 million, the network ranked second in total day viewers — behind MSNBC (1.37 million) and ahead of Fox News (1.32 million).

Despite not dominating in total viewers, CNN is leading in the 25–54 target demographic. According to cable news viewership statistics, 524,000 of the channel’s primetime viewers fall into this group, compared to just 391,000 for Fox News and 365,000 for MSNBC. Similarly, 349,000 of CNN’s total day viewers are aged 25–54, compared to Fox News’ 221,000 and MSNBC’s 217,000. In all the metrics, CNN has achieved a double-digit increase over Q1 2020.

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