Before President Trump occupied the White House, he was known for bragging about the ratings for his NBC reality show “The Apprentice.”
Based on the year-end Nielsen ratings for cable news, Trump can rightfully start boasting again.
Fox News finished 2017 as the most-watched cable network in all of TV for the second consecutive year, with an average of 1.5 million viewers, up 8% over last year. MSNBC finished third among all cable competition with 890,000 viewers, up 48% to a new high, while CNN finished sixth with 783,000, up 4%.
Most impressively, all three news networks improved on the record viewing levels achieved in 2016, a year bolstered by an epic presidential election campaign. Cable news channels traditionally expect an audience decline following an election year, but the unpredictability of the Trump White House generated interest, passion and anger that kept audiences tuned in throughout 2017.
With daily combative press briefings and nuclear saber rattling with North Korea, among other issues, there was always a compelling reason to watch.
“The polarization of the Trump administration has turned people who might not have followed the news quite as deeply or quite as long into news junkies,” said former CNN President Jon Klein, who is now chief executive at online video company TAPP Media. “You can’t outdo the Trump era for drama. The real world is now delivering what every screenwriter can only hope to deliver.”
The addictive don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-something narrative of the Trump White House was powerful enough to pull viewers away from the general entertainment cable networks.
Most of top cable entertainment networks — including USA Network, TNT, TBS, AMC, FX, Freeform, Lifetime, Spike and SyFy — saw their audiences decline compared with last year, according to Nielsen data.
“Everybody was massively surprised at the strength of news ratings this year,” said Howard Shimmel, chief researcher for Turner, the Time Warner division that operates TBS, TNT and CNN.
“Based on the norms of every other post-election year there should have been a decline of 15% or 20%,” he said. “It’s no doubt that for some demographics news is almost original reality programming and its popularity is eroding other genres. We’ve never lived through the times that we’re currently living through.”
The ratings resilience of Fox News is particularly surprising in a year when two of its best-known prime-time personalities departed. Megyn Kelly headed to NBC at the start of 2017, while Bill O’Reilly, long the undisputed ratings king of prime-time cable news, was fired by the network in April over sexual harassment allegations. But the network’s prime-time audience held steady at 2.4 million viewers.
As Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News parent 21st Century Fox recently put it to Wall Street analysts, “We’ve lost some of our stars and lost none of our audience.”
The politically right-leaning Fox News solidified its status as the cable ratings news leader by being the lone friendly forum for President Trump’s policies and supporters on many of its shows. Sean Hannity, who spent years in the shadow of O’Reilly’s long-running success, is now the most-watched of Fox News’ prime-time shows thanks to his reliably ardent defense of the Trump administration and his attacks on “mainstream media” coverage.
MSNBC gained ground by serving as the home for viewers dedicated to resisting Trump’s policies, led by its progressive prime-time star Rachel Maddow. The NBCUniversal-owned channel saw a staggering 51% year-to-year audience increase in prime time, lifting the average to 1.6 million viewers.
CNN focused on aggressive reporting on the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, which turned the network into the president’s favorite target on Twitter and campaign rallies. While the network fell behind MSNBC in prime time in overall viewers, it was still the most watched year in the channel’s history, which dates to 1980.
“Conservatives in the heartland were euphoric about having a voice about having a champion,” said Klein. “Liberals were and remain appalled and outraged and fearful. With all of the plot lines and story arcs percolating, it’s sort of like one massive national binge view.”
But the unexpected strength of cable news is not the only factor in the decline of entertainment networks.
Pay-TV providers continue to lose customers, showing a net loss of 1.1 million subscribers in 2017, which means the overall universe of cable viewers is getting smaller. The loss is down from 1.3 million subscribers in 2016, largely because Nielsen has started counting subscribers to streamed channel packages such as DirecTV Now, Sling and Hulu as part of the pay-TV audience.
Viewers who want scripted dramas and sitcoms are spending more time with streaming video on demand services such as Netflix and Hulu. As of August, Nielsen said 62% of U.S. households now get video on their TV through an internet-connected device.
As a result, the average number of people watching cable and broadcast TV in prime time declined 6% year over year. Among the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers seek to reach, the decline was 9.6%.
While cable networks are adding more original scripted series to their lineups, viewers are watching them more often on a delayed basis through streaming, video-on-demand and DVR playback.
“The majority of people engaged in original series are going to DVR it,” said Bill Abbott, chief executive of Crown Family Media Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel. “If they like it enough they will set a season pass and it will record every week and they’ll binge on it.”
Shimmel said 20% of the audience for the first runs of original series on TBS and TNT plays them back on their own time using a DVR, streaming or a video-on-demand service, more than a week after the shows’ initial airing. There are fewer water cooler shows, such as AMC’s big hit “The Walking Dead,” that hard-core fans need to watch the night they premiere so that plot twists and character deaths can be debated the next day.
“As we’ve made content available in more places, the need for people to rely on a linear schedule to catch up becomes less and less every day,” Shimmel said.
Ratings for cable channels that viewers can turn on anytime and know exactly what they are going to get appear to be holding up better in the era when TV shows and movies are available on demand.
Abbott’s networks’ the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, which specialize in romantic and holiday themed feel-good movies viewers can escape to around the clock, both saw their audiences grow year-to-year.
The true-crime network Investigation Discovery was up 8% and ranked first for the year with its target audience of women ages 25 to 54, and reality-driven TLC was up 2%. NBCUniversal’s Oxygen, which moved to a true-crime format, saw its viewing level rise more than 50% year over year.
General entertainment network A&E was one of the few channels to see a ratings increase thanks to its new hit “Live PD,” which follows police departments on patrol around the country in real time.
But going into 2018, the most popular reality show remains located at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.