A wild year for cable news: Shakeups, firings and ratings challenges

"The Five," a daily roundtable on Fox News, was the most-watched cable news program for the second consecutive year.
(Fox News)

The cable news business was not pretty in 2023.

Fox News was beleaguered by a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems that cost the network $787.5 million to settle. Then the network jettisoned its top-rated prime-time anchor Tucker Carlson, whose inflammatory statements about race and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection put him on the more-trouble-than-he’s-worth list.

CNN had a turbulent period under the brief tenure of Chris Licht, who was fired from his post as chairman in June. His attempt to please conservatives by booking more Republican guests and a chaotic town hall with former President Trump invited criticism and alienated viewers.

And then there were the ratings.

While Fox News finished 2023 as the most-watched cable network for the eighth straight year, its average audience of 1.2 million viewers was its lowest since 2015, according to Nielsen data. In the weeks after Carlson’s exit, some viewers bolted to right-wing channel Newsmax, which saw its audience rise 20% to 145,000, though many later boomeranged back to Fox.


CNN averaged 481,000 viewers, its poorest showing since 2014. The network also hit an all-time low in the 25 to 54 age group sought by advertisers.

The network lost to left-leaning MSNBC, which increased viewership 7% over last year to 792,000, partly thanks to its coverage of Trump’s multiple criminal indictments. Even as a once-a-week host, Rachel Maddow remains a favorite of progressive MSNBC Moms as her program averaged 2.4 million viewers, making it the NBCUniversal-owned network’s top-rated show.

While the specific problems that Fox News and CNN faced did not help, their audience declines can also be attributed to the existential crisis the cable business is facing because of cord-cutting consumers who have abandoned pay TV subscriptions for streaming video. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC now each reach around 70 million homes. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, compared to more than 90 million homes in 2016.

The trend poses a challenge for the networks that depend on pay TV subscriber fees for the bulk of their revenue. They are also contending with a growing number of competitors as more video news sources are being discovered by consumers via streaming.

The decline in younger consumers using pay TV has cut into one of the strengths of CNN, which has long boasted an audience with the lowest median age in cable news. CNN’s median age was 67 this year, up from 60 in 2017.

That figure is still lower than the median age of the Fox News (68) and MSNBC (71) audiences. But CNN long benefited from being the destination for younger viewers who were not habitual cable news viewers. They could be counted on to tune in during major breaking news events. Not so much anymore.

Rachel Maddow helped lift MSNBC's ratings by 7% in 2023.

Consumers under age 50 have been the age demographic group abandoning pay TV at the most rapid pace. Many prefer to watch CNN content digitally on mobile and desktop platforms, which averaged 126 million unique U.S visitors a month in 2023, according to data from Comscore. (Fox News ranks second with 96 million unique users a month).

Tarlov has the challenging task of serving hot takes from the left on the No. 1 show on cable news.

Sept. 29, 2022

One positive data point for the cable news business is that it’s still faring better than most other outlets in the linear television business. While cord-cutting and streaming have demolished the ratings of entertainment cable networks that depend on scripted programming, households that remain in the pay TV universe watch a lot of news and live sports.

The continued appeal of live news is what encouraged Nexstar Media Group to convert its entertainment cable network WGN America into NewsNation, which will be a 24/7 operation by next fall. In prime time, the network’s audience increased from 59,000 to 101,000 in large part due to the addition of former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo to its lineup.

News viewers tend to be older and more likely to hold on to their pay TV subscriptions, according to Jill Rosengard Hill, executive vice president for global media and entertainment at research firm Magid. “They value the ease of use,” she said.

The combined average audience for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC in the last TV season is 37% higher than the 2014-15 season when the networks reached far more households. The period coincides with the political rise of Trump, who turbocharged the ratings for all three networks. All three rank in the top five among cable networks and still deliver significant profits for their parent companies.


But the slow, steady decline of pay TV customers is not going to reverse.

That’s why Mark Thompson, the former New York Times chief executive who was named to replace Licht at CNN, has made it a priority to transition the network into the streaming age. Just before Thompson arrived at the company in October, a streaming version of CNN was added to parent company Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max platform.

Fox News is also preparing for the day when the pay TV bundle can no longer deliver a mass audience. Its subscription streaming service Fox Nation, which currently provides documentaries, lifestyle programming and entertainment shows aimed at conservative viewers, could eventually become a direct-to-consumer service offering Fox News itself.

Hill noted that cable news channels will also have to contend with the growth of free ad-supported streaming news services from station owner Scripps, broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and even Fox, which offers content from its local TV outlets on a channel called LiveNow. Magid research conducted in February showed consumer awareness of the free channels has grown to 60%, up from 46% in surveys taken less than a year earlier.

While Fox News took a significant ratings hit in the months after Carlson was pulled off, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s network slowly recovered after revamping its prime-time lineup with the addition of host Jesse Watters, the snarky commentator. Watters is also a regular on “The Five,” the most-watched cable news show for the second consecutive year.

Fox News has successfully handled unplanned departures of its star talent by developing personalities on panel shows and weekend programs. If the audience likes them, they move on to more prominent roles.

Watters averaged 2.5 million viewers, down from the 3.3 million viewers Carlson scored in 2022. But he ranked as the second most watched program behind “The Five,” which finished the year with 2.7 million viewers, down from 3.5 million in 2022.


Fox News also helped itself by amassing large audiences in the second half of the year with two Republican primary debates, the first of which attracted 13 million viewers even without Trump on the stage. Longtime host Sean Hannity made news and boosted his audience with town halls and special events, including a debate between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Trey Yingst of Fox News
Trey Yingst of Fox News
(Fox News)

All of the cable news channels have seen their ratings rise since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants.

But one surprising trend is the growth of Fox News in markets located in large, liberal cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where viewing of the network is up by 22% compared to the four weeks before war. It’s likely the network is drawing some new viewers with its steadfast support for Israel’s military response and criticism of pro-Palestinian protesters in the U.S.