Fox beats CNN in prime-time news, but so what?

CNN’s prime-time ratings — those hours between 7 and 11 p.m. that command premium advertising rates — have fallen sharply. CNN, reports The New York Times and MSNBC, now trails three of its principal competitors, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and its in-house competitor, HLN (formerly Headline News).

CNN’s ratings in the prime 25-54 demographic fell 77 percent in the last 12 months. Finger-pointers and blame-gamers abound. The Times‘ Bill Carter calls the last-place performance of CNN’s “signature host” Anderson Cooper “alarming” at the 10 p.m. slot. Charles Warner of writes at HuffPo that Fox and MSNBC may have outbid CNN for favorable channel positions. Others, like Bill Gorman of, thinks CNN lost its substantial advantage gained from its political coverage from 2006 to 2008.

But seasoned TV pundits are missing a significant point lost in the blizzard of analyses of the cable news rating wars.

The Times‘ Carter offers a forest of numbers to paint a distressing picture for CNN (which, of course, paints an equally depressing financial picture). His Oct. 26 story provided ratings and leaders for each prime-time hour. (By the way, his story provided no source for the numbers. Mr. Warner at HuffPo says Mr. Carter received the numbers from MSNBC executives perhaps eager to stick it to the Chicken Noodle Network.) But here’s the nutshell for the evening hours:

For the month, CNN averaged 202,000 viewers, ages 25 to 54. That was far behind the dominant leader, Fox, which averaged 689,000. But it also trailed MSNBC which had 250,000 viewers in that group and HLN, which had 221,000 viewers.

For those without a calculator handy, that’s about 1.3 million viewers between 25 and 54 years old for all prime-time cable news programs. According to Neilsen, the rating service, America has about 115 million TV households. Those households have an average of 2.83 television sets.

So what the hell is everyone else watching? Or doing? Let’s subtract about 30 million people over 70 who just don’t watch TV at late hours. And another 20 million under 5 years old for the same reason. If only 1.3 million are watching the “journalism” that supposedly maintains an adversarial relationship with government (hah!), then what are about 62 million people doing between 7 and 11 p.m.?

Let’s cut another 25 million who would be watching prime-time network or cable entertainment programming. (Even “Law & Order” reruns — which draw up to 10 million viewers — dwarf CNN’s viewership.) That’s still 37 million people not watching the prime-time cable “news” programming.

No, I don’t know why. But I’ll hazard a guess or two.

The 1.3 million who do watch cable news prime-time programs have firmly held (and not always rationally adopted) political points of view. They need their daily ideological dose of Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. But the 62 million who don’t watch the cable prime-time offerings may have simply concluded that it’s just not news, and that the opinionated content simply has too little value.

Frankly, the cable news networks’ collective decision to bloviate instead of inform between 7 and 11 p.m. has hurt all of them. Fox may outdraw CNN by a factor of three, but given that tens of millions of Americans do not watch Fox and its opinion programming should be little comfort to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.

After all, many millions of those tens of millions of people who do not watch Fox or CNN or MSNBC or HLN are between 25 and 54 years old. And they have money to spend.

Cable news networks should re-examine what they do between 7 and 11 p.m. if they wish to be more profitable — and survive.

23 replies »

  1. Denny wrote: “But the 62 million who don’t watch the cable prime-time offerings may have simply concluded that it’s just not news, and that the opinionated content simply has too little value. ”

    I believe we call that an “Aha” moment, Denny. Great analysis….

  2. How do the channels do during other dayparts–in total viewership and in relation to each other?

    Some good number crunching, Denny. Nice work.

  3. I can’t decide which part of this is more upsetting: that people don’t watch news, that news is so bad I understand why people don’t watch news, or that 689,000 viewers aged 25 to 54 watched FOX. Oh wait, yes I can decide. The latter, hands down. Proof that it’s better to keep living outside the U.S. for now. Bummer, I could afford a really nice house in the U.S. now.

  4. Denny, wasn’t there a time in US journalism when practically every newspaper had a slant?

  5. “But the 62 million who don’t watch the cable prime-time offerings may have simply concluded that it’s just not news, and that the opinionated content simply has too little value.”

    Or they may be mindlessly surfing the ‘Net, watching Mentos + Diet Coke explosions, buying stuff they can’t afford, discovering the joys of complementary + alternative medicine, finding kewl noo wayz 2 txt thngs, posting rambling comments on certain blogs …

    You have too much faith in your fellow Americans.

  6. Denny, I’m not sure what happened in this regard in the rest of the country, but I know that, at least in NYC on Time Warner Cable (which is nearly a monopoly in here), moving CNN from channel 10 to 83 — 83!! — which is surrounded by no channels that people watch, must have done grave damage to its ratings in NYC. I can tell you from my own personal experience and that of my friends here that the location of the channel when you’re just flicking around makes a difference. And it was strange when it happened, too. I don’t remember any announcements or anything, just that one day we turned on channel 10 which has been CNN in NYC for at least two decades (but I think since its inception) and it’s FX or something. Then everyone had to find where the hell CNN moved on their own. Completely bizarre, almost to the point that it’s hard to believe Time Warner Cable didn’t do this to damage CNN’s ratings for some specific reason.

  7. If we’re going to call Fox and MSNBC’s prime time slots news, shouldn’t we toss The Daily Show/The Colbert Report in there, too?

  8. has way more Pageviews (Impressions) then Something like 28-30mm to 8-10mm a month.

  9. I have a question….has anyone done income analysis on these two competing groups? My gut tells me that these people who get their news from Fox are not as educated as those who get it from other places….does it not follow that the income level of these under informed viewers would therefore be lower than their more educated counterparts….is this my own prejudice or or is it just logic? If I were an advertiser I would aim my ads at the prosperous groups ….anyone follow this stuff….just wondering.

  10. As many watch fox news as voted for nader in the last election..Networks dont yet realize how much damage fox news has done to them. When fox obviously lies , delibertly putting a D instead of a R on a congressman when he has done something wrong, and leaving out and downright lying to twist facts around, they are hurting all networks news because we think if fox does this, do all news do this.. Networks and congress have let integrity and honest reporting lower to the KKK level, spewing hate for half of americans ……………..

  11. I swore off the cable shouting head shows in 2002 and have been quite content with that decision. I still get updates in the blogosphere on the lunacy still emanating from those shows, further affirming my decision.

    Fox gets two million viewers a night, I recently saw, but there are about 120 million voters. So we are clearly talking about extremists on the tails of the distribution. They are loud, of course, and now they show up a political rallies wearing guns and spouting dazzlingly foolish slogans. But what they are not doing is persuading others over to their side. Indeed, the more extreme they get, the more they are driving reasonable folks away.

    So Fox News is really the propaganda unit for a form of virulent extremism that it is driving revulsion of those positions rather than opposition to Dems. They are painting the GOP as a loony bin and increasingly isolating “the base” (al-Qaeda in Arabic). The only real concern is that their violent rhetoric will lead to more violent action.

  12. Chris:

    I apologize in advance, I’m painting a broad brush, and I don’t have numbers. I’m just going off of experience.

    “has anyone done income analysis on these two competing groups?”

    I brought up the two news organizations websites in a vague way answer this. It really strikes me to see the difference in the amount of people who watch Fox News and CNN, verses the amount of people who visit, and Actually my numbers above represent page views to the home page. History tells us that higher earning people are highly educated and have more disposable income. Having worked at a major ISP, I can say that when times are tight the first thing that is dropped from the cable bill is internet. Generally people will keep cable and phone. The amount of people that have cable over internet is staggering, I don’t have raw numbers, but in my experience it seemed like 5:1. I currently work for an internet ad network and I can say that premium advertisers will pay the most money for the traffic on isp home pages and news sites. I’m going to assume that higher earning people will visit because either A) They have access to internet at home. B) They work in a job that has access to the internet most of the day, and in general these jobs are better paying. Of course there exceptions to this, and I’m painting a broad brush, but it’s something worth looking into deeper.

  13. @chris g One of the most alarming things to me is that the far Right in the US actually come in all sizes, shapes and at every educational level. It’s quite well documented. That’s why discourse has skewed so far right. What passes as left is barely middle of the road, as some of the comments on this site make clear.

  14. As far as its channel placement, in the suburbs of New York, where I live, CNN is still located between MSNBC and Fox.

    Somewhat center-right, it doesn’t offer the fireworks of Fox or MSNBC. Plus, with the likes of Wolf Blitzer, it’s stupefyingly mediocre.

  15. @Tom: Agreed. As soon as you bring FoxNews into the discussion, you immediately have to query the Daily Show. Satire is satire. One can’t pick and choose. And sadly, the Daily Show represents the best and most insightful news analysis on television.

  16. Dan Carlin did a good podcast on this topic that got into the fact that all cable news is skewed. One of his points is that FOX has a monopoly on the Right, while the Left is splintered by CNN and MSNBC. Also folks like MSNBC have followed Fox’s lead by being adversarily ideological becuase it gets ratings. Would the landscape be better if Fox had some competition for conservative viewership?

    Heres a link to the cast:—FOX-Hunting