Report: CNN loses 45% of primetime audience in just five weeks

Consider this a sequel to Ed’s post last week tracking the steep decline in cable-news ratings in the post-Trump era. No one’s been hit harder than CNN, he noted, citing Variety’s comparison of the network’s ratings in early March versus early December. Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon each saw declines in the neighborhood of 30 percent or more over that period, greater than any primetime shows at Fox or MSNBC.


What wasn’t clear from the Variety analysis, though, was how much CNN’s audience had fallen off very recently.

All news outlets, print and A/V, are seeing consumers drift away in the relative tedium of the Biden era following the tumult of the election, “stop the steal,” and insurrection. But 45 percent for CNN is … a big number.

Barely two months into the post-Trump era, news outlets are indeed losing much of the audience and readership they gained during his chaotic presidency. In other words, journalism’s Trump bump may be giving way to a slump.

After a record-setting January, traffic to the nation’s most popular mainstream news sites, including The Washington Post, plummeted in February, according to the audience tracking firm ComScore. The top sites were also generally doing worse than in February of last year, when the pandemic became a major international news story…

The most deeply affected network is CNN. After surpassing rivals Fox News and MSNBC in January, the network has lost 45 percent of its prime-time audience in the past five weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC’s audience has dropped 26 percent in the same period. Fox News — the most Trump-friendly of the three networks in its prime-time opinion shows — has essentially regained its leading position by standing still; its ratings have fallen just 6 percent since the first weeks of the year. The cable networks declined to discuss their ratings outlook for this article.


Why has CNN gotten it the worst? Ed speculated, correctly I think, that although it’s liberally biased it’s still the least overtly ideological of the three networks. If you’re a conservative and you’re hungry for criticism of the Biden administration, you know where to go. If you’re a liberal who wants to hear a defense of the administration’s policies and attacks on the GOP, you have an obvious option as well. Those audiences are relatively inelastic because ideological fervor will always drive a certain degree of interest in politics and current events. (And fervor tends to increase when your side is out of power, which may explain why MSNBC’s audience has dipped more than Fox’s.) CNN’s audience is more elastic because casual viewers consider it to be the “newsiest” and least partisan of the three options. That’s why the network’s ratings tend to leap when there are big doings afoot and to sink when there aren’t. A meaningful chunk of Americans who normally don’t watch news but are gripped by some current event will reach for CNN.

The fact that CNN primetime has lost nearly half its viewers in five weeks, in other words, is a testament not only to how slow things are right now but to how busy they were as recently as a month and a half ago, when casual viewers were still flooding into the network. Trump’s second impeachment trial was the culmination of a breakneck news era that barely relented for 14 months. It began with his first impeachment in December 2019. We had his first impeachment trial in 2020, then the start of the Democratic primaries, then COVID arrived, then we had the chaos of the pandemic and the BLM protests and the campaign off and on for the next eight months plus a surprise Supreme Court vacancy and confirmation. Finally we had an election and a momentous post-election period in which Trump spent months in court trying to overturn the results, followed by an attack on the Capitol. Not until he was acquitted by the Senate and the Biden White House got to work on the COVID relief bill did we return to politics resembling normalcy. Fourteen months.


Anyone who started watching cable news last year and ended up riding the carousel of political trauma every day could finally, finally hop off this month without fearing they’d miss something important. CNN, the “newsy” network, is the biggest media casualty of that.

But they’re not the only casualty. Trump’s departure is causing anxiety on the other side of the cable-news ideological spectrum as well:

“We all knew their ratings surge wouldn’t last just because that’s how the news business is especially something as amateur hour as Newsmax,” a current Fox News staffer told The Daily Beast…

Having already seen its 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. average total audience (the network’s peak day part) dwindle from 509,000 in January to 405,000 in February, Newsmax is only drawing 308,000 total viewers in March—an additional decrease of 24 percent. In total day, its overall viewership has tumbled all the way down to 178,000, a loss of 20 percent from the month before.

The March demo (ages 25-54) audience for 4-8 p.m. has also plunged 32 percent from February to just 47,000, while total day’s 25-54 demographic audience has fallen an additional 29 percent.

Newsmax was drawing around a quarter of Fox’s audience after the election. Now it’s drawing an eighth. That’s partly attributable, I’m sure, to some disgruntled former Fox viewers forgiving the network for calling Arizona for Biden early and drifting back into Fox’s orbit. Another part is probably due to hardcore Trumpers who abandoned Fox for good losing interest in Newsmax, whether because they think the programming is subpar or because they’ve reconciled themselves to the fact that Biden is president and are disinterested in the news now. Others may be jonesing for “stop the steal” propaganda and finding that Newsmax is no longer scratching the itch, especially now that Dominion’s lawyers are scrutinizing the network.


If in fact America is returning to “normal,” we should expect to see Fox on top, MSNBC number two thanks to its ideological support, CNN lagging until news picks up again, and Newsmax largely an afterthought. And that is in fact what we’re seeing at the moment.

What we really need is a new alternative to the big three cable news networks, one with a more pleasing ideological bent. I’d watch the hell out of this channel.

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