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MSNBC’s election coverage finishes ahead of CNN’s for the first time

MSNBC anchors sit behind a "Decision 2022" display.
Chris Hayes, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Ari Melber on MSNBC’s election night set Tuesday.
(Virginia Sherwood / NBC)

While the votes were being tallied for the Democratic Party’s surprising showing in the midterm elections, some CNN viewers may have been asking, “Where’s Wolf?”

Longtime CNN star Wolf Blitzer was not the lead anchor of the network’s prime-time election coverage for the first time since 2004, as Jake Tapper took over the reins along with Anderson Cooper. Blitzer was on during the afternoon well before the polls closed, and he was gone by 4 p.m. Eastern.

Whether it was the anchor change or the growing tribal nature of the cable audience, with progressives flocking to MSNBC and conservatives sticking with Fox News — Tuesday was not a good night for CNN from a ratings standpoint.

In a memo sent Tuesday, Licht said CNN is looking at ways to reduce costs. It’s not clear whether the cuts will include layoffs.

The Warner Bros. Discovery-owned news channel finished behind MSNBC on an election night for the first time, according to Nielsen data.

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Fox News led the night with 7.4 million viewers from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern. MSNBC, which went with a panel of opinion hosts led by Rachel Maddow, averaged 3.2 million viewers.

CNN averaged 2.6 million viewers, putting it behind broadcast networks ABC (3.3 million) and NBC (3.1 million). CBS averaged 2.6 million viewers. CNN’s audience was down 50% from the 2018 midterms.

CNN did finish second overall in the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers use to buy commercial time on news programming, with an average of 1.05 million viewers in the demographic. Fox News led with 1.8 million viewers.

But the loss in overall audience is another blow to CNN, which has been undergoing upheaval in recent months under its new ownership. As parent company Warner Bros. Discovery tries to bring down its debt, CNN is bracing for cost-cutting and layoffs.

Republicans who backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election lose key races for positions in which they would have overseen elections. But in some areas, they’re poised to win.

(The decision to make Tapper the lead anchor on election night was made last year under former CNN chief Jeff Zucker, according to a representative for the network.)

The ratings were also affected by the trend of consumers cutting the cord on their pay TV subscriptions and watching more news coverage on streaming channels.

Overall, the TV viewing numbers for the midterm elections were down significantly from 2018.

The total average audience across all networks carrying midterm coverage Tuesday was 25.4 million viewers, down 30% from 2018.

ABC, CBS and NBC all showed their TV coverage of the night on their free ad-supported news channels. The Fox Corp. provided coverage from its TV stations around the country on its Live Now streaming channel.

CNN also made its coverage available for free on a live stream on its website. Consumers who stream CNN typically need a pay TV subscription.

ABC, CBS and NBC are giving more resources and big stars to their news streaming channels, which are no longer terrain for the B-team.

The TV audience declined despite the high level of interest in the midterms. Many pundits believed the Democrats were in for a bruising and would lose control of both the Senate and the House to the Republicans. But the majorities were still not determined by Wednesday afternoon, and even a House victory for the GOP would be below the margins some pollsters expected.

While opinion hosts on the Fox News Channel were strident in their predictions of a Republican “red wave” ahead of the election, the news side of the operation led by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum stuck to the numbers during its coverage on the night.

The network’s prime-time provocateurs Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham appeared briefly, but Sean Hannity — who on Monday featured pollsters confidently predicting a win for Dr. Mehmet Oz’s Senate campaign in Pennsylvania (he lost to John Fetterman) — did not turn up.

Fox News, which has been criticized for leaning further politically right in recent years, featured five Democratic commentators during the coverage, including “The Five” co-host Jessica Tarlov. She was the lone voice on the network in recent weeks who suggested that the dire predictions for the Democratic Party’s performance in the midterms were overblown.

Fox News anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier.
Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier focused on the numbers during Fox News’ midterm election coverage.

Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, gave a lengthy, unvarnished assessment of how the Republican Party failed to provide a credible alternative to the Democrats, who were polling poorly on their handling of the economy, crime and immigration.

“The Republican Party needs to do a really deep introspection look in the mirror right now, because this is an absolute disaster,” Thiessen said.

There was also no hesitation from the Fox News election decision desk in calling close races for Democratic candidates. Fox News faced major backlash from its Donald Trump-supporting viewers in 2020 when it called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.

Updates

6:09 p.m. Nov. 9, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect revised viewership numbers from Nielsen.


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