The ratings are in for those CNN town halls. It was... meh

Yesterday I looked at the disappointing ratings for some editions of CNN’s endless parade of Democratic 2020 candidate town halls. They seemed to describe a stark contrast with the massive audience Fox News pulled in for their similar Q&A session with Bernie Sanders. That led me to ask whether the problem was a lack of interest in CNN on the part of the viewers or a lower level of interest in the non-Sanders candidates. Monday night’s marathon of five CNN town halls (including one with Sanders) seemed to be the perfect opportunity to put that question to the test.

Now we have the numbers and they’re not quite as definitive as some of us might have hoped they could be. Deadline has a breakdown of the hour-by-hour ratings and there are some definite variations, but nothing that really leaps out as a final determination.

FNC outscored CNN’s town-hall palooza Monday night. MSNBC did same in total viewers only, but fell short of CNN in the news demo.

From 7 PM to midnight, FNC clocked 2.3M viewers and 380K in the 25-54 age bracket, besting MSNBC (1.8M, 2.85K) in both metrics and handily trumping CNN (1.2, 371K) in overall audience, with a tighter win in the news demo.

CNN’s 10 PM town hall with Kamala Harris (1.4M, 496K) fared best among the Dem White House hopefuls who played along with CNN’s town hall orgy of excess, that started at 7 PM with Sen. Amy Klobuchar and wrapped at midnight with its one-hour Q&A with Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Analyzing ratings remains something more akin to an art rather than a science, but it can be useful in looking at trends. Total audience should probably be more of a factor, but the target demographic is the 25-54 age group so they are given more weight. With that in mind, let’s see how it all shook out.

Keep in mind that the Bernie Sanders event on Fox was a ratings giant, pulling in 2.5 million total viewers and 489,000 in the target demo. So how did the five town halls on CNN go? (Numbers shown as total/target.)

Klobuchar: 869K/183K
Warren: 1.2M/332K
Sanders: 1.3M/457K
Harris: 1.4M/496K
Buttigieg: 1.2M/389K

By any measure, Sanders’ appearance on Fox crushed all five of these in terms of total viewership and bested all but the Kamala Harris town hall in terms of the target demographic. But if we’re being honest, we can’t look at these raw numbers in a vacuum.

First of all, the time slot you’re working with has a lot to do with it. 7 pm eastern (4 o’clock on the west coast) is a tough sell because so many people are still either at work or commuting, having dinner or doing anything other than watching television. Conversely, the nine and ten o’clock (eastern) time slots are far more desirable. By eleven you’re starting to lose a lot of the east coast. With that in mind, Sanders and Harris had a built-in advantage here and the numbers reflected that. In fact, Harris outperformed Sanders despite being far further back in the current polling numbers, suggesting people wouldn’t be as interested.

The second factor involves the typical behavior of viewers. Unless they are someone who scans all the channels obsessively to find political content, many viewers have one go-to cable news station they default to. Fox regularly crushes both CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, so they had a larger starting pool of viewers for their town hall with Sanders.

When you combine all of these factors together, I’m not sure we can fully answer the question I originally posed. It’s true that Sanders outperformed three of his four opponents on Monday night, so that may be part of the equation. But it’s also true that none of them did anywhere near the traffic that Fox News garnered with their town hall. But Fox always does better than CNN. Are people less interested in watching CNN or are they less interested in watching non-Sanders candidates? Sorry to say, but it looks like both of those answers were factors here.