Cable News Ratings War Intensifying

A headline and an accompanying photo that went up on the top of the Drudge Report at 6 PM EST on Monday, July 24 grabbed a lot of attention. In bold black caps, the headline read: “MSNBC Wins Week For First Time.” The photo: A smiling Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s #1 prime time host of The Rachel Maddow Show. The link from the Drudge Report headline led directly to MSNBC’s news release, the original of which is also all in caps: “MSNBC Most Watched of All Cable Networks in Weekday Prime for 1st Time in Network History.”

Befitting the importance of this development, Matt Drudge left the story up as his site’s top headline until well into the next morning, for a minimum of six hours but possibly more like twelve. But was the prominence that Drudge gave it due to its real significance, or as “click bait” to draw page views from his largely conservative readership – who would presumably be shocked to see their favorite cable news channel (Fox) apparently bested by the über left MSNBC?

The Drudge Report July 24, 2017

In any case, the next day, July 25, Fox News, not to be outdone, released its own analysis of the same raw cable news ratings, provided by the Nielsen Corporation, with a startlingly different interpretation, also all in caps: “Fox News Channel Continues to Dominate All Cable Networks in Total Day for 29 Consecutive Weeks.” The FNC release had a subhead: “FNC Also Outpaces All Cable Networks in Primetime for Ninth Week in a Row on Monday-Sunday basis.”

So, how could both of these news releases – with seemingly opposite interpretations of the same data – be correct?

Television ratings compiled by Nielsen have always been complicated – especially now with hundreds of channels and the ability to measure specific demographics to a hair-splitting degree. Audiences for programs and time slots can be defined by age, sex, race, and numerous additional audience criteria. This is what advertising, the real purpose of television, is all about: Identifying a specific audience in order to better target it for advertising. All of the fine tuning is necessary due to the extreme splintering of audiences. In the early days of television before the proliferation of cable channels that began in the 1980s, the number of broadcast channels was a limited – in most of the nation’s markets, three network affiliates and in the larger markets a small number of independents, as well. The most popular programs on the broadcast networks sometimes gained a 50% or larger share of the audience that was watching TV at that time. Those kinds of super ratings have not been seen for decades.

These days, a basic cable subscription provides around 100 channels and the possibilities for additional bundled and online channels raise the number of available channels into four figures.

What is surprising is that, for all of the attention given to the three cable television news outlets, all three of them on an average night together have at most a total of six or seven million viewers in prime time (8-11 PM M-F). In 2014, there were an estimated 240 million adults (age 18 and older) living in the United States. That means on average, only one out of approximately thirty-four adults is watching cable TV news at any one time during prime evening viewing hours.

On top of that, a variety of studies and surveys confirm that conventional television viewing is seriously declining in popularity among all age groups, but especially rapidly among people in the younger age demographic – many of whom never took up the viewing habit in the first place. An article in 2013 in Forbes described the current model of cable TV as not only unpopular but “unsustainable.” Of course, for a lot of Americans, especially younger people, watching videos on their smart phones or tablets, ranging from short clips on YouTube to complete series, has replaced or cut into time that previously might have been spent watching actual television sets connected to cable or satellite.

This context – with the economics becoming more competitive than ever as the audience is growing smaller – helps to explain why every television channel today feels the need to put the best possible face, or spin, on the ratings picture.

The question remains: How could the MSNBC and Fox News Channel ratings analyses both be be so different and yet both be correct?

The short answer is that MSNBC and FNC were citing slightly different data sets in the ratings. MSNBC was highlighting the Monday through Friday ratings and Fox was citing the whole week. Using these metrics, each channel can say that it came out on top for the week – and both of them would technically be correct. (Apples and oranges anyone?)

A. J. Katz, Co-editor Adweeks’s TVNewser

A section of the Web site Adweek called TVNewser publishes the daily and weekly cable news ratings online and does an excellent job at interpreting them. For example, in his take on the full week in question in this discussion (Monday through Sunday July 17-23), co-editor A.J. Katz played it fair and objective with his article “MSNBC Wins Weeknights Across the Board; Fox News is Most-Watched For Full Calendar Week.”

It was an extraordinary week for MSNBC, as the network won the weekday cable news ratings race in key dayparts and in key metrics for the first time in its 21-year history.

Rachel Maddow had the No. 1 cable news show of the week, averaging 711,000 demo viewers and more than 2.9 million total viewers.

But Fox News still managed to win the full calendar week (Monday July 17 – Sunday July 23), both in total day viewers (29th consecutive week) and in total prime time viewers (9th consecutive week), per Nielsen data.

Looking at a typical day reported by TVNewser, Wednesday July 26, 2017 (with no breaking news events that day to influence normal viewing preferences) illustrates the overall recent trend. In prime time, MSNBC won the demo (viewers aged 25-54) but Fox won in total viewers. CNN was a poor third in both metrics. In total viewers, between 4 PM-12 AM ET, FNC won every hour against MSNBC except 9 PM (Rachel Maddow vs The Five) and 11 PM (a live Brian Williams newscast vs. a Tucker Carlson replay). In the demo, MSNBC beat Fox at 5, 9, 10, and 11 PM – although at 10, Hannity was only 5 points behind Chris O’Donnell, and on many nights Hannity wins his time slot.

One consistent, strong performer on the Fox schedule that too often escapes notice, in light of the preoccupation with prime time shows,  is the 3-hour morning ensemble news/talk program Fox & Friends. Taking advantage of the recent ratings that have Fox & Friends on top, FNC took a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times Magazine highlighting the program.

The cable news wars of the spring and summer of 2017. which followed high profile staff upheavals at Fox News and a lot of negative press directed at the channel, have resulted in no clear and consistent winner so far – certainly nothing like FNC’s far and away domination of the field for fifteen years that was finally interrupted in 2017. Ultimately, the new competitive landscape seems to have benefits for the serious cable news viewer. Each of the channels is striving to distinguish itself and grab and keep viewers. Many FNC shows – Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity immediately come to this viewer’s mind – are doing some of their best shows ever.

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care. His new Web site is Peter's July 13, 2017 one-hour interview on The Hagmann Report can be viewed here.

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