President Trump kept cable news on a ratings roll in 2018. But online streaming services continued to cut into audience levels for general entertainment cable networks such as USA, FX and Lifetime, according to year-end data from Nielsen.
While consumers have grown accustomed to time-shifting their favorite scripted dramas and comedies, cable news presents the ongoing saga of the Trump presidency live. Viewers have remain hooked on each unpredictable chapter since the 2016 campaign.
Fox News was the most-watched cable network for the third consecutive year, with a record high average of 2.5 million viewers in prime-time, up 2% from 2017. Only the four major broadcast networks had larger audiences than the 21st Century Fox-owned channel.
NBCUniversal’s MSNBC also had its best year ever, finishing second overall with 1.9 million viewers, an 11% increase from 2017.
CNN ranked 11th overall, with 990,000 viewers, down 7% from a year ago. But that was its highest audience level ever in a midterm election year.
Fox News held onto its ratings crown despite the efforts of liberal watchdog groups that successfully pressured some advertisers to remove their commercials from the programs of the network’s provocative conservative hosts.
Advertisers exited Laura Ingraham’s program after she needled Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor David Hogg on Twitter over his college application rejections (he was recently accepted into Harvard). More recently, dozens of sponsors dropped Tucker Carlson’s program following backlash after he remarked that mass immigration was making the U.S. “dirtier.”
Still, Fox News remains the prime-time TV destination for President Trump’s political base, while White House critics populate the panel desks at CNN and MSNBC. Fox’s Sean Hannity, the president’s most prominent media advocate, had the most-watched program in cable news for the second straight year.
The question going into 2019 is how the popularity of Fox News will hold up if Trump’s fortunes go into an extended spiral resulting from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into election meddling by the Russians.
“There must be an exhaustion among some Trump supporters in hearing all that’s going on,” said Joe Peyronnin, a Hofstra University journalism professor and former network news executive. “It gets to a point where you say ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’ It’s harder to defend the administration and it’s perhaps a little discouraging among the Trump supporters.”
MSNBC and CNN tend to benefit when the news is particularly bad for the White House. Fox News slipped to a rare third-place finish behind MSNBC and CNN in late August, when Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion, and his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance, bank and tax violations.
For the week of Dec. 17-23, Fox News saw some viewer fall-off when Trump faced major negative reaction to his precipitous announcement that U.S. troops will be leaving Syria. Some of the criticism came from the network’s own hosts and analysts. As a result, MSNBC scored its first weekly prime-time win over Fox since 2000. (Hannity was on vacation during the week.) .)
But Fox News does have a history of snapping back after having a few down days in the ratings. Following the slip in August, its audience level surged back up with the escalating controversy over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Fox News was overwhelmingly the leading TV source for the dramatic daylong testimony of Kavanaugh’s sexual assault accuser, Palo Alto professor Christine Blasey Ford, and the nominee’s heated response.
While Fox News, MSNBC and CNN duke it out for supremacy in cable news, all three can take some solace in avoiding the audience declines that continued to plague entertainment channels in 2018.
AMC, Lifetime, FX, Freeform and SyFy saw year-to-year losses of more than 10% or more, while TBS was off 9%. USA, with an average audience of 1.7 million viewers, the most of any entertainment network, was off 9% from 2017. TNT bucked the trend with a 2% gain, thanks to strong ratings from its National Basketball Assn. games.
The declines have occurred despite the heavy investment cable networks have made in original scripted series programs in recent years. But every year more viewers are turning to online streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to watch shows on their own time instead of when television channels first air them.
Viewers are even turning to streaming to catch repeats of classic shows – long a dependable staple for cable networks. While Netflix does not release audience data, TV executives say privately that the service’s most popular programs are reruns of “Friends” and “The Office.”
“There are just so many options out there and it’s undeniable how much of an impact that’s having on viewing,” said Bill Abbott, president and chief executive of Crown Family Media Networks, the parent company of the Hallmark Channel.
Early-adopting younger viewers have been steadily turning to streaming for years, but the more traditional TV age groups are joining them in larger numbers. According to Nielsen data, a daily average of 1 million viewers in the demographic of women 25 to 54 were watching video through an internet-connected device in fall 2016. By fall 2018, the figure had nearly doubled, to 1.8 million viewers.
Larry W. Jones, a former president of Viacom’s TV Land channel, said streaming has viewers trained to watch scripted TV programs with few or no commercials.
The trend, he said, is irreversible: “This is not something that one big hit is going to turn around for any general entertainment network.”
The networks that are best equipped for survival as linear ad-supported channels have well-defined audience niches and brand identities, Jones said. Networks will also need to be able to better target consumers with their commercials in order to compensate for lower overall ratings.
Hallmark Channel, with its holiday-themed movies and consistent feel-good tone, fared better than the rest of the entertainment pack, with a 2% audience increase over last year. The true-crime channel Investigation Discovery remained even with last year’s audience level. Oxygen, which switched to the genre in mid-2017, saw a 15% gain in viewers.
Networks that depend on reality programming — which has an immediacy that compels loyal fans to watch live instead of streaming it later — also fared better. MTV, which moved away from scripted shows and brought back its “Jersey Shore” stars in a new series, was up 13% in 2018. TLC gained 10%, helped by such reality hits as “90 Day Fiancé.”