Donald Trump’s momentum is stalling in the Republican presidential primary polls, but he’s already left his mark on the Nielsen ratings for cable news.
Nielsen data for the third quarter of 2015 showed Fox News Channel is the top-rated network in all of basic cable. It was the first quarterly win ever for the channel since it launched in 1996. FNC’s competitor CNN also had a significant ratings lift during the period.
Both channels had the benefit of massive audiences for the two Republican primary debates. Fox pulled 24 million for its showdown on Aug. 6, a record for a non-sports cable program. CNN was not far behind with 22.9 million for the second GOP debate held on Sept. 16.
The Trump campaign juggernaut has largely been played out with his cable news appearances where his jabs at the political establishment have made him a must-watch attraction. Trump proved to be a viewer magnet for the debates, which in past presidential cycles have drawn far smaller audiences at that point in the campaign.
In prime time, Fox News averaged 1.95 million viewers for the quarter, up 10% from the same period a year ago. The gain was 28% among the 25- to 54-year-old age group that advertisers want to reach with news programming.
CNN’s quarterly average rose by 47% to 814,000 viewers in prime time, and saw its 25-to-54 audience rise by 36%.
MSNBC, which appeals to politically left-leaning viewers in prime time, experienced a more modest increase of 13% to 625,000 viewers. Its 25-to-54 audience declined by 5%.
Trump has made no secret when he’s unhappy with his treatment by a journalist. Interestingly, it was the cable news anchor that Trump expressed the most displeasure with -- Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly -- who had the strongest ratings during the period.
Kelly angered Trump with her tough questioning during the Fox debate, leading to a series of nasty tweets and remarks by the candidate. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes needed to intercede to end the attacks.
But Kelly, who never had Trump as a guest on her nightly program “The Kelly File,” had the top rated program in cable news for the quarter in the 25-to-54 demo with 509,000, putting her just ahead of her lead-in, “The O’Reilly Factor” (503,000), for the first time ever. Kelly’s average includes a high-rated episode that played right after the record-setting Fox debate.
Trump’s battles with Fox News have become a sub-plot in his campaign. On Sept. 23, he announced a boycott of the channel “for the foreseeable future” after a scheduled “O’Reilly Factor" appearance was canceled. Trump’s guest spot was pulled after he resumed making critical remarks about Kelly on Twitter last week.
A day after the boycott was announced, Fox News executives said they would meet with Trump to discuss his issues with the coverage and perhaps review with him the journalistic process of covering the campaign. No date has been set for the meeting, but Trump was back on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Tuesday night, perhaps sensing that he still needs to reach the Fox News audience to sustain his leadership position in the polls as other competitors close in on him.
O’Reilly, who openly acknowledges a longtime friendship with Trump, asked pointed questions about Trump’s proposed tax plan and his “maturity” on the campaign trail.