People may have lost some interest in politics after The Year That Was, but they’ve lost more of it at CNN than at its competitors. Variety reports that all of the Big Three cable news networks have seen significant declines over the last three months, although Fox News Channel has managed to hold the decline down to single digits. CNN, however, has seen their prime-time viewership drop dramatically over the last three months, and Variety chalks that up to the disappearance of CNN’s favorite prime-time punching bag (via Twitchy):
Our prediction that audiences would perk up for President Trump’s second impeachment trial proved correct. But in the weeks after the trial ended, audiences for CNN have plummeted; MSNBC is seeing about half CNN’s drop, while Fox News is down single digits. While the left-leaning networks may be losing steam without the ability to feed off of Trump being in office, conservative audiences have found new focal points for their concerns. …
Beginning first with total audience, it’s clear that CNN is the network that misses Trump the most. Trump-bashing tirades lack their zip with their protagonist taking on a much lower profile post-election, with “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon” and “Anderson Cooper 360” seeing their average audience in the first week of March one-third lower than the first week of December.
CNN isn’t the only network to see declines, but they are the most pronounced. MSNBC’s drops are around half of what CNN saw, with Chris Hayes (-16.7%) and Lawrence O’Donnell (-17.6%) seeing steeper declines than total primetime news leader Rachel Maddow (-9.1%).
Fox News has seen the smallest audience declines over the period, but it is interesting to note that Sean Hannity, who may have leaned more on his association to Trump than the others, has seen the greatest drops among Fox News’ primetime lineup, down by double digits (-11.9%) versus “The Ingraham Angle” (-9.2%) and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” (-4.8%, the smallest decline seen across all primetime news titles).
There are two dynamics in play in this decline, not just one, and the similar resilience against both for both Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson point up the difference. First, Americans are exhausted with politics, especially after the Capitol riot and second impeachment trial. The latter only produced a mild bump upward in ratings, as it was probably seen as an extended and non-dramatic end to the Trump term rather than real news.
Of all the shows on the Big Three networks, Maddow and Carlson’s are the most ideological and philosophical, making both somewhat less dependent on chasing the dragon of the day to spike their viewership. And indeed, Carlson’s ratings have been relatively flat over the last three months, except for the spike around the Capitol riot; Maddow’s viewership has been more up and down, but she’s at the same level as she was in mid-December.
Carlson’s chart is behind the paywall, but Variety tweeted out the 9 pm ET chart showing Maddow’s resilience. Sean Hannity has declined a bit more but he’s still holding most of his audience:
— Variety (@Variety) March 11, 2021
The real news here, though, is CNN. Our friend and former colleague Noah Rothman tweeted out the charts that show CNN cratering in prime time. However, CNN and MSNBC both have a bigger problem “in the demo,” and it’s certain that advertisers are paying attention. Bear in mind that these charts are chronologically backward in order to better demonstrate their declines:
Double yikes, if advertising $$ is your thing. pic.twitter.com/jSTKp5AaOm
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) March 12, 2021
Has there been an industry-wide decline in interest in politics after the 2020 annus horribilis? Yes there has, but not on the scale CNN has experienced. Is that due to the lack of material coming from Mar-a-Lago these days? Probably, at least in some part, which is why Carlson and Maddow have experienced less of the viewer stampede. The rest of these shows obsessed over Trump for the last five-plus years, and they built an audience that responded to that input. That’s true to some extent with Laura Ingraham and Hannity too, but Fox News Channel will always be buffered by the lack of real large-scale, national-clearance competition on the Right too.
However, I wonder whether something else is in play at CNN. This is the network that gave viewers The Cuomo Brothers Show in 2020, with Chris propagandizing for his brother Andrew. Andrew’s multiple scandals — especially the nursing-home scandal, with a potential body count in the thousands — exposed CNN’s crude narrative-building of Andrew as their anti-Trump. Having feted Andrew as “the Love Gov” in 2020, a nickname with a sick connotation after multiple allegations of sexual harassment have emerged, CNN may be suffering not just a nadir of viewers’ political interest but a cratering of credibility as well that goes well beyond Trump.
The news industry will rebound eventually. It might not hit the high-water mark of viewer interest intensity that we saw in late 2020, but people will get back to paying attention to policy and elections once they’ve had a chance to take a break from the roller coaster of the past year. One does have to wonder, though, whether CNN can ever recover its credibility. That might require an entirely new prime-time lineup — one that doesn’t cover for family members and their scandals in office.