While CNN and Fox News struggle to win back longtime viewers amid various controversies of their own making, MSNBC is quietly reaping the benefits of its rivals’ misfortunes.
While both CNN and Fox News saw their ratings plunge this past quarter compared to last year, MSNBC experienced a surge, tallying significant year-over-year growth across all dayparts and metrics.
Furthermore, though the liberal-leaning cable network hasn’t yet fully caught up to Fox News in viewership, the channel’s recent strong showing has made the ratings battle closer than it's been in more than two years.
And this past month, for the first time since 2018, MSNBC actually beat both CNN and Fox in primetime viewership among the key advertising demographic of adults aged 25-54.
The formula behind MSNBC’s recent ratings success appears to be a combination of factors, most of which happens to lie with their competitors.
Fox News famously infuriated much of its core audience when it shockingly fired its biggest star, far-right weeknight host Tucker Carlson. Immediately, the network saw its viewership plummet—especially in primetime—while MAGA influencers and Fox’s right-wing competitors urged conservatives to boycott the channel.
Additionally, MSNBC has seemed to benefit from disaffected liberal cable-news consumers ditching CNN during Chris Licht’s reign as CEO, seeking a more consistent alternative. While Licht inherited already sagging ratings when he took over last year, the network suffered backlash over the decision to air a disastrous town hall with former President Donald Trump in May. In the aftermath of that broadcast, the network saw its worst viewership numbers in nearly a decade, and was even beaten by also-ran far-right channel Newsmax a few times—a remarkable turn of events.
These same factors, meanwhile, have been a boon to smaller cable news competitors, namely pro-Trump channel Newsmax and self-styled centrist outlet NewsNation. Both networks experienced massive audience growth compared to last year, especially in primetime.
According to Nielsen, for total day, MSNBC averaged 796,000 viewers overall and 140,000 in the key 25-54 advertising demo for this year’s second quarter. Compared to last year’s second quarter, MSNBC’s total viewership grew by 16 percent while the demo audience was up 23 percent.
In primetime for Q2 2023, the network averaged 1.26 million total viewers and 139,000 in the 25-54 demographic, representing year-over-year gains of 12 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
For the month of June, meanwhile, MSNBC closed the gap with Fox at night, falling just 174,000 total viewers short of the conservative cable giant in overall viewers and a mere 4,000 in the demo. Last month, Fox averaged 1.49 million primetime total viewers and 148,000 in the demographic, shedding a troubling 54 percent in the demo compared to last year.
All in all, MSNBC saw double-digit growth across total day and primetime viewership in all metrics, both compared to 2022 and the first quarter of this year. CNN, which barely averaged a half-million total primetime viewers for the quarter, sank to 14th place among basic cable in nighttime viewership and experienced a 14 percent decline year-over-year. In the primetime demo, the trend was even worse as the network fell 19 percent with 126,000 viewers.
Many of MSNBC’s regular programs, meanwhile, accrued massive gains over the previous year. Weekday news show Katy Tur Reports, for instance, grew its total viewership by 44 percent while the demo audience shot up by 59 percent. The Beat with Ari Melber, an early weeknight offering, was up 28 percent in overall viewers and 46 percent in the demo.
While Fox and CNN dealt with primetime struggles this past quarter, MSNBC’s nighttime programming flourished. The Rachel Maddow Show, which now only airs on Monday nights, was the most-watched cable news program in primetime, drawing 2.444 million total viewers and 266,000 in the demo. (Fox News’ The Five, which airs at 5 p.m. ET, remained the top-rated program in cable news.)
Maddow also saw 36 percent growth year over year in overall viewers and an increase of 29 percent in the demographic. All In with Chris Hayes was also up 20 percent in total viewership and 31 percent in the 25-54 category. Furthermore, in June, Hayes won his cable news time slot in the key demo for the first time in the show’s history, a feat that would have been unheard of during Carlson’s tenure.
MSNBC, though, may not be able to continue to rely on its rivals’ woes to fuel its ratings growth. Both CNN and Fox News have recently made moves in hopes of rectifying their downward trends.
Licht, amid increasingly negative press and staff dissent, was fired earlier this month. With an interim executive team in place, the network has made something of a course correction in recent weeks and already reversed some of the changes Licht had imposed during his tumultuous 13-month reign. The combination of these cosmetic and tonal shifts along with the network’s decision to dive headlong into covering the news cycle’s biggest stories resulted in CNN topping cable news in the key demo a few days last week.
Fox News, meanwhile, finally pulled the trigger on announcing a full-time replacement for Carlson’s 8 p.m. show. While the network’s entire lineup had seen audience erosion in the post-Tucker era, it was most glaring in Carlson’s old time slot. Fox News Tonight, which was anchored by a rotating slate of the network’s B-teamers, drew roughly half of Carlson’s total audience and 69 percent fewer demo viewers compared to last year’s second quarter.
Jesse Watters, whose 7 p.m. show had quickly become one of the network’s biggest hits, will now fill Carlson’s shoes. On top of that, self-proclaimed “King of Late Night” Greg Gutfeld will move his “comedy” show down to 10 p.m., leaving arch-conservative host Laura Ingraham to shift to Watters’ old slot. Fox News original Sean Hannity will keep his stalwart program at 9 p.m. The moves, which insiders described to The Daily Beast as being “safe,” appear to be an effort to prove to the network’s MAGA base that Fox does, indeed, “respect the audience.”
Still, it remains to be seen if these changes at CNN and Fox News will be enough to stop the bleeding. In the meantime, MSNBC continues to experience its best ratings since the start of Joe Biden’s administration. And with Trump’s legal woes only ramping up as the 2024 election kicks into gear, there’s enough fodder to keep the network’s core audience fully engaged for the foreseeable future.