The bad news for CNN and MSNBC: Donald Trump turned out to be correct about their business model. The good news: His impeachment trial comes in Sweeps Month. Variety reports that the post-Trump era looks bleak for both cable networks, while Fox News looks as though they barely took a dent:
While January 2021 will go down in the ratings record books for CNN, the last week of the month may offer a portent of what the post-Trump era will be like for the network.
In the first week of the Biden administration, the AT&T-owned news channel saw the audiences that had been flooding into primetime recently drop precipitously on Jan. 25-29 compared with the highs of previous weeks. Meanwhile, rival Fox News Channel saw its own ratings only dip slightly after weeks of registering its own sharp declines.
Another network that has been characterized as left-leaning, MSNBC, has also seen significant declines but nowhere near as steep as what has hit CNN: Variety Intelligence Platform’s analysis of the viewership data across two key metrics—the target news demographic for people ages 25-54, and the total audience watching—shows that CNN ended the final week of January with ratings dropping roughly 44% for total audience versus the prior week across all three hours of primetime.
While it’s too early to conclude any longer-term direction for news ratings after just one week, the downturn could be interpreted as an indicator of what many industry observers had anticipated: With Biden in the White House, networks that have spent the last four years railing consistently against Trump have lost the main attraction that energized their audience bases, making it difficult to hold onto the elevated viewing levels.
Some of this can be explained by the typical ennui following a national election. News consumers usually take a break from the daily grind for a while between Election Day and New Year, but that break got postponed thanks to the insanity of the post-election period. The drop started shortly after the Capitol riot and the following anti-climax of the Electoral College count. It might rebound a bit during the Senate trial, but it might be a longer break than usual thanks to the fever pitch of the last couple of months.
That doesn’t explain everything, though. Fox News’ ratings have barely budged, although they had a bit of a drop last year. The interest lost looks somewhat more particularized, as though a great many people care a lot less about CNN and MSNBC analytical programming after the departure of Trump. Those networks dedicated themselves to counter-Trump programming for the last four years and profited handsomely off of it. Now they have to find a new raison d’etre that will inspire passion in the post-Trump era.
And … good luck with that. Fox won’t have that issue as their audience is already primed to oppose most of what Joe Biden will do, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. CNN and MSNBC’s prime-time hosts will have to either play cheerleader for the Biden administration or choose to be critics. The first option will bore their audiences, and the second one will split them. The next four years might be such a ratings desert that they will start looking for ways to reinflate the Trump bubble — and might end up with a lot more incentive to do so than Fox.