Presidential politics was stranger than fiction in 2016 and that made it a good year to be in the cable news business.
All three major cable news networks had their largest audiences ever, thanks to the drawing power of the nonstop surprises of the 2016 White House campaign that culminated with the election of Donald Trump.
Year-end numbers from Nielsen showed that the 21st Century Fox-owned Fox News Channel was the most-watched network in all of cable with an average of 2.43 million viewers in prime time, up 36% over last year. Only the four major broadcast networks had a larger audience.
Both Fox News competitors finished in the top 10 among ad-supported networks, with Time Warner’s CNN averaging 1.29 million viewers, up 77%, and NBCUniversal’s MSNBC seeing an 88% gain with 1.1 million viewers.
Political coverage also helped give the Fox Business Network its best year ever. Its audience grew 83% and topped CNBC for the first time in the fourth quarter.
But it was tougher sledding for networks that specialize in scripted dramas and comedy.
Many of the top entertainment channels, such as TBS, SyFy, AMC, Freeform, Spike, History and A&E, saw declines of 10% or more. FX, a network that won the second most Emmys this year behind HBO and the home of the year’s most acclaimed scripted program “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” was down 8%.
Preston Beckman, a TV consultant who spent decades as a network executive, said viewer interest in the election probably pulled some audience away from those channels.
“If more people are watching cable news they are watching less of something else,” Beckman said. “That’s what we saw with the decline of the NFL ratings and we may be seeing that with other stuff.
It was an atypical election year. It was hard to beat the story that was being told on the news channels.
“It was an atypical election year. It was hard to beat the story that was being told on the news channels.”
The presidential election was a story that required viewers to watch live as it happened. That gave the news networks an advantage over scripted programs, which can be watched on demand or online after they air.
The online audience isn’t measured in the Nielsen ratings, a situation that networks and advertisers are hoping will soon be rectified.
Online viewing is cutting into traditional TV viewing overall, especially among younger audiences. Nielsen data show that prime-time TV usage in the 18-to-49 age group — the one most coveted by advertisers — was down 5% in 2016. Cable TV usage among teenagers declined 13%.
Streaming services have given viewers more original series to watch in addition to enabling them to catch up with their favorites. The added competition is further fragmenting the audiences of the entertainment cable networks.
A recent study by cable network FX showed that there were 455 scripted shows in production in 2016, including 93 produced for online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
“The more product there is, the less likely [it] is for something to jump out and become a hit,” Beckman said. “There haven’t been a lot of new hits and a lot of established shows are aging and in decline.”
There are some exceptions to the trend among the entertainment cable channels. The Hallmark Channel, which started airing Christmas movies in late October, was up 10%, to 1.05 million viewers in prime time. A network executive speaking on condition of anonymity theorized that Hallmark’s audience is seeking TV comfort food and is far less likely to sample the edgy fare that appeals to younger viewers who are binge-watching shows online.
Viewers who are looking for more conventional storytelling are also tuning to Investigation Discovery, which offers true crime series and specials around the clock. The Discovery Communications-owned channel’s ratings were up 9%, to 994,000, in 2016.
ID also had the longest average length of tune-in among its target audience of women ages 25 to 54. Viewers watched an average of 57 minutes compared with 27 minutes for all television networks.
Those who wanted some respite from the election mayhem may have headed to HGTV. The network specializing in home buying and renovation shows was the only non-news cable entity in the top 10 to see in a year-to-year increase, up 5% to 1.58 million viewers.