Media

US TV network ratings dive after prime years of Trump and trauma


As the news cycle has calmed under Joe Biden’s presidency and the pandemic has eased, US media groups have suffered dramatic audience declines, with primetime ratings for cable television news networks CNN and MSNBC falling more than 50 per cent in the third quarter compared with a year ago.

Last year’s cocktail of Donald Trump, a deadly pandemic, the US presidential election and historic racial protests drove a record interest in following the news — propelling cable TV channels, newspapers and other journalistic enterprises to soaring heights of viewership and revenue.

Now, these groups face an equally breathtaking fall back down to earth.

Primetime ratings for AT&T-owned CNN dropped 52 per cent in the third quarter for viewers aged 25 to 54, a key demographic for advertisers, according to Nielsen figures. MSNBC, the left-leaning network owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal, suffered a 51 per cent fall, while Rupert Murdoch’s rightwing Fox News faired comparatively better, with primetime ratings falling 37 per cent during the quarter for this demographic.

“This is uncharted waters after the Trump bump,” said Ken Doctor, founder of a California news start-up, Lookout. “It’s highly unlikely we will see another bump like that over the next 10 years.”

At this time last year, Trump was providing around the clock drama. Americans faced another grim wave of the pandemic as the weather cooled with no Covid-19 vaccine in sight. Protests had raged across the US all summer, while many workers were cooped up at home rather than at the office. Whether they sought the comforts of Fox’s Tucker Carlson or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Americans across the political spectrum were glued to their screens.

The Biden era has been decidedly calmer, while wide access to vaccines has helped to temper deaths from coronavirus. Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch had told investors that this year’s decline was expected.

“We are now seeing expected audience pullback since the election,” Murdoch said in February, which was “consistent with prior election cycles”. He added: “We fully expect that news audiences will normalise and Fox News will continue to dominate.” 

Line chart showing quarterly primetime ratings for viewers (25-54 years old demographic) of top 3 cable news networks (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC), from Q3 2012. All three networks' ratings dramatically fell from their Q4 2020 peaks in 2021.

However, the Trump era had kept Americans captivated by the news even after his 2016 election win, defying typical trends. Primetime ratings for Fox News for adults aged 25 to 54 fell only 5 per cent in the third quarter of 2017, compared with 2016. CNN ratings also lost 5 per cent, while MSNBC soared 29 per cent as the network of opposition to Trump.

This year’s smaller audience holds financial consequences for these groups. Kagan, part of S&P Market Intelligence, estimates that MSNBC net operating revenue will fall from $1.1bn last year to $940m this year, while Fox News will drop from $3.1bn to $2.8bn.

The fallout is not limited to television. The New York Times in the first half of this year added 443,000 digital subscribers, a steep slowdown from the 1.2m added in the first half of 2020.

Meredith Kopit Levien, New York Times chief executive, told investors in May that the news cycles of the past five years had fuelled “unprecedented demand for Times journalism”. However she added that “we are very confident that there is still wide interest in the news”.

“I don’t think the world is getting any less interesting,” Kopit Levien said. “I don’t think it’s getting any less complex.”

Julie Pace, executive editor of the Associated Press, told the Financial Times the end of the Trump era “gives us a chance to not be pingponging between the controversies of the day in Washington”. 

“It draws eyeballs, but it blocked out the sun in some ways”, said Pace, who had been the news agency’s Washington bureau chief during the Trump administration.

After riding high under Trump, news companies face wider questions over the future of their businesses, particularly as audiences shift away from traditional television and print media and towards digital alternatives.

“Presidential politics certainly can catalyse a lot of viewing, as can any ongoing drama, and you had both of those last year”, said Brian Wieser, president of business intelligence at the ad agency GroupM. “But [TV] viewing will continue to decline at a pretty rapid clip [due to cord-cutting]. So four years from now, total [TV] viewers will be 15-20 per cent lower.” 

Doctor views the correction as a warning to the industry: “It’s clear that news companies of all sizes, national, locally and globally, can’t depend on explosive news cycles to model their business on.” 



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