Fox News Ratings Are Up – and Why the Numbers Matter

Some readers may be wondering why the frequent reporting lately on cable news ratings – in an online political publication that is not well known for catering to the business side of media – is worthy of their attention. The simple answer is that the ups and downs of the three cable news channels’ rankings are increasingly important to the future of high-information citizens and voters.

Cable television news channels – like all of cable and broadcast TV – live and die according to the ratings, generated by the Nielsen Company, which are the basis of advertising rates and ultimately corporate profits. The introduction of the Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1996 started a sea change in television news. Finally, after decades of center-left dominance of the mainstream media, there was a high-profile, widely available alternative – “fair and balanced” with generous and generally respectful coverage of conservative points of view.

By 2001, a year that will live in infamy for other reasons, a new status quo had emerged. For the next fifteen and a half years, Fox News was consistently the number one cable news channel, almost always trouncing CNN and MSNBC. Incredibly, Fox News was responsible for around $1 billion a year in profits for its parent company, 21st Century Fox, and was the largest profit center in the huge Fox entertainment business that includes movies, broadcast television, and book publishing, to name a few.

Fox News’s most famous host, Bill O’Reilly, had the number one show in all of cable news without interruption – an unprecedented achievement – beginning in 2001 until he was abruptly fired in April 2017.

At that point, a tectonic shift in the cable news landscape seemed like it might be imminent. In O’Reilly’s wake, the reconfigured Fox News prime time schedule appeared vulnerable. Without much delay, the previously unthinkable started to happen. Many programs on the Fox News channel began to suffer ratings losses. And Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s perennial ratings loser with her radical left wing show at 9 PM ET, started to beat Fox News in the “demo” (viewers aged 25-54) and on some nights victory for MSNBC in capturing the total number of viewers was now in sight.

The mainstream print media – in most cases never fans of FNC to begin with – started to take notice. Scores of print and Internet outlets began to report on the crises seemingly facing Fox News, while heralding purported “surges” in the performance of its two rivals. The numbers don’t lie and during several weeks this past spring MSNBC was the number one cable news channel in both total and demo viewers.

However, even more recently, especially with live breaking news coverage that tends to be associated with ratings volatility in terms of who watches what and where when news is happening, Fox News has shown itself to still be a ratings contender. A decision in the battle for cable news viewers is not quite over yet.

To cite a very recent example: On Tuesday, June 20, a day when the high profile special election for a Congressional seat in Georgia was finally decided, Fox News – aided by its live breaking news coverage that was interspersed with its regular prime time schedule – scored a strong showing. Tucker Carlson at 8 PM had the number one program on all of cable TV (not just cable news) in terms of total viewers, just shy of three million. Sean Hannity at 10 PM was #2 with only 40,000 fewer total viewers than Carlson.

A news release from Fox News on Wednesday June 21 described the Tuesday ratings:

According to Nielsen Media Research, FOX News Channel (FNC) was the most-watched network for coverage of the Georgia special election in both total viewers and demo last night.

In primetime, FNC averaged 2.8 million in total viewers and 570,000 in the 25-54 demographic. Also, a special edition of Special Report with Bret Baier beat both MSNBC and CNN across the board at 11PM/ET with 1.9 million in total viewers and 470,000 in the demo. Additionally, FNC delivered three of the top five cable telecasts, including: Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity and The Five.

To some extent, television ratings reports are open to interpretation and spin. As has been said in another context, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” To put it more charitably, a cable channel’s public relations department can and does interpret the numbers to its own advantage, for example grouping certain programs or time slots together to make the picture appear a bit rosier. For its part, the media’s interpretations of the ratings race can seem contradictory and schizophrenic, adding to the confusion.

On May 31, for example, Joe Concha, the prolific media reporter for The Hill, reported in an article titled “Fox News holds off MSNBC for May ratings win” his analysis that “Fox News won the month of May by a slim margin in the cable news ratings race against a surging MSNBC. . .The win marks the 185th consecutive month in which Fox was the most-watched cable news network.” One week earlier, Chris Ariens of TVNewser/Adweek, in an article titled “MSNBC Wins Its First Week Ever in Prime Time,” painted a more sobering picture for Fox News – based on the same Nielsen ratings: “Fox News Channel finished third among the advertiser-coveted A25-54 demo in prime time last week.  . . That hasn’t happened during a regular week of programming in nearly 17 years.” Taking a closer look, the apparent difference in interpretation between Concha and Ariens results from the difference between the ratings for one week in May and the whole month.

As summer is now upon us, and notwithstanding Fox News doing fairly well in the most recent ratings, a major article by Michael Wolff appeared on June 20 in the Hollywood Reporter. The article, titled “Who Will Win the Trump Tug-of-War” in cable news, “CNN vs. NBC News,” featured this lead: “With a post-Roger Ailes Fox News virtually sidelined. . .”

The future of cable news programs, both new and well-established, depends on the ratings. In light of Fox News changing its prime time schedule this past spring, one of its most important and venerable programs, Sean Hannity’s nightly 10 PM show, has drawn increased attention. So far, as noted earlier, Hannity is doing very well – and as the longest serving Fox News host with a large, loyal following, he probably has many years ahead of him at FNC – as long as he wants them.


Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care. His bio with links to many of his writings can be accessed here.