What is behind Fox News's early 2018 ratings slide? -Updated

The cable news ratings for the first week of 2018 are in, and MSNBC beat competitors Fox News and CNN in the critical 25-54 demographic.  Since Monday January 1 was a holiday, regular cable news channel programming resumed on Tuesday January 2. From Tuesday through Friday, MSNBC won three of the four weekday nights in the demo, and Fox News took three nights in the number of total viewers.  Advertisers consider the demo metric to be the more critical one.

Interestingly, Fox News won both the demo and total viewers in prime time on opening night, Tuesday.  After that, it lost the next three nights in the demo and Wednesday night in total viewers.  On Wednesday morning (E.T.), the blockbuster story about Michael Wolff's forthcoming book, Fire and Fury, that takes aim at the Trump administration and President Trump in particular, first broke.  When news that is unfavorable to President Trump leads, one theory holds that ratings of the anti-Trump Resistance channels, MSNBC and CNN, go up as more people who oppose Trump are attracted to watch the left-leaning channels.  The ratings picture in the first week of January appears to add weight to that analysis.

On Wednesday, the audience in prime time for all three cable news channels was almost one million more than Tuesday before the news of the Wolff book went to the top of the news cycle.  There were 360,000 more viewers in prime time on Thursday than Wednesday as the story of Wolff's book, which shot to #1 on Amazon, continued to command attention.

CABLE TV NEWS RATINGS January 2-5, 2018 (source: Nielsen Research via TVNewser):

1.0 = 1,000 viewers
examples: 516 = 516,000 viewers, 2,783 = 2,783,000 viewers

Tu Jan 2 FNC wins demo and total viewers
Prime time Demo: FNC: 516 | CNN: 353 | MSNBC: 450
Prime time Total Viewers: FNC: 2,783 | CNN: 910 | MSNBC: 2.043

Wed Jan 3 MSNBC wins demo and total viewers
Prime time Demo: FNC: 525 | CNN: 434 | MSNBC: 605
Prime time Total Viewers: FNC: 2,594 | CNN: 1,143 | MSNBC: 2,679

Thur Jan 4 MSNBC wins demo, FNC wins total viewers
Prime time Demo: FNC: 552 | CNN: 409 | MSNBC: 588
Prime time Total Viewers: FNC: 2,845 | CNN: 1,239 | MSNBC: 2,643

Fri Jan 5 MSNBC wins demo, FNC wins total viewers
Prime time Demo: FNC: 462 | CNN: 321 | MSNBC: 486
Prime time Total Viewers: FNC: 2,558 | CNN: 1,000 | MSNBC: 2,245

On the cover of Rolling Stone, June 2017.

Meanwhile, last week, the ground zero for cable news, the hour between 9 and 10 P.M. E.T., saw Rachel Maddow of MSNBC beat Sean Hannity on Fox News in both the demo and total viewers on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights.  Maddow's show, which came in second or third to Fox News for years, suddenly began a winning streak in the spring of 2017, at least in the 25-54 demo, when the Resist Trump movement started to take off and Trump's enemies found a home at MSNBC, which became the 24-7 Resist Trump channel.  Fox News's ratings-dominant prime-time schedule was also upset early in 2017 with the departure of host Megyn Kelly and the firing of Bill O'Reilly.

Two years ago, on January 5, 2016, the cable news ratings picture was radically different. It was the first Tuesday night of the new year, and Fox News won prime time in the demo by more than two to one over MSNBC, which was in last place behind CNN.  Incredibly, CNN and MSNBC together had only 11,000 more viewers than Fox News in the prime-time demo.  In the measurement of total viewers that night, Fox News had 50% more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.

If the theory above holds water, that bad news for Trump = good news for MSNBC and CNN and bad tidings for FNC, it will be interesting to see what happens later this year.  Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the Trump campaign and administration for alleged collusion with the Russians shows no signs of ending anytime soon – and before it does, it is expected to result in more indictments of people close to Trump or maybe even the presentation of evidence against the president himself.  There is also the growing meme, reinforced by the content of Wolff's book, that Trump is not mentally or psychologically fit to be president.  This questionable proposition has recently gained increasing amounts of airtime in the mainstream media and momentum among the MSM's predominantly never-Trump commentariat.


Finally, another nugget of information from Nielsen Research helps to explain the rise in MSNBC's ratings in 2017.  As A.J. Katz reported at TVNewser on January 8:

In 2017, MSNBC was the most-watched cable network among African-Americans in weekday prime time.

Per Nielsen, the network averaged 483,096 African-American viewers across its weekday prime[-]time programming of All In With Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show[,] and The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell.

Fox News was not on the list of the top ten cable channels most watched by black Americans.  In 2017, MSNBC's ratings among black viewers were 50% higher than in 2016.  In 2015, the channel had an average of only 157,832 black viewers in weekday prime time compared with 483,096 in 2017.

Postscript: After this article went online, a respected "industry insider" provided the following comment: "How silly is it for a network to try and claim a weekday win when it wasn’t even a full week as Monday [January 1] was a holiday and many regular hosts were still out of the office."

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture.  On January 4, Peter was invited to appear as a commentator on the BBC's international television news program Trending.  For announcements and links to a wide selection of Peter's published work, follow him on Twitter at @pchowka.