Tracking Cable News' Rise and Fall Amid the Tumultuous 2020 News Cycle


Jeffrey Silverman, PhD
Director, Data Science & Analytics
Aug 13, 2020

With most live professional sports leagues returning in late July and a slowdown of production on new shows, the big question that loomed is what viewers would watch from mid-March until now. New data from Samba TV takes a deep dive into how audiences are engaging with cable news, and a closer look at who is actively watching which networks.

One key trend is the rise, fall, and then rise again of both household (HH) reach and time spent. As the months Americans were at home wore on, cable news’ early gains began to disappear. In late April and May, viewers appeared to lose interest in COVID updates, as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News lost nearly 40% of their reach, compared to the high points they hit in mid-March. Everything changed with the nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd, which triggered a massive spike in cable news tune-in at the end of May and early June.

Let’s dig into some of the key insights from Samba’s analysis of these three big cable news networks:

COVID peaks fade to valleys, protests spark new interest

All three networks hit their peak in household reach in mid-March. CNN (18 million HHs) and MSNBC (10 million HHs) hit their respective high water marks in reach the week of March 15, with Fox News cresting one week later (16 million HHs). In terms of total time spent, all three networks reached their highs the week of March 22.

As people started tuning out of global COVID updates in April and midway through May, all three networks hit their lowest points since early March in terms of reach and time spent. Once nationwide protests started to form, each network experienced hockey-stick growth the week of May 24. CNN viewership shot from 10 million households to 14.5 million, while Fox News (+2 million) and MSNBC (+1.9 million) each saw gains in household reach as well.

CNN leads in households, but Fox News viewers watch more

From March 1 through May 31, CNN averaged 900,000 more HHs per week compared to Fox News, but Fox News viewers averaged more weekly time spent (6.2 billion minutes per week, compared to CNN’s 4.9 billion). CNN managed to overtake Fox in time spent viewing just once, the final week of May, with 3 million more minutes of viewing time. That week capped some amazing growth from CNN, as viewers doubled their minutes viewed from two weeks earlier.

Younger audiences are turning to cable news

When breaking out viewership by age, interesting trends emerge in the different groups under 45 years old. Compared to the standard 45-years-old and over viewership across these networks, the Millennial demographic was the second largest. The Millennial subset favored CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, in that order. While Gen Xers and Boomers tuned to MSNBC, followed closely by Fox News and CNN.

Washington, D.C. watches MSNBC

MSNBC trailed both CNN and Fox News throughout the spring in terms of both total HH reach and time spent across the country, but when you isolate the Washington, D.C. market, it’s actually MSNBC that leads the pack. A small fraction of Fox News’ audience lives in Washington, D.C., while CNN takes the middle spot for the district.

While there was no shortage of news events to draw audiences over the last few months, the latter half of the year looks just as eventful with the election season quickly approaching. Samba TV will continue to track cable news throughout the second half’s emerging news cycles, monitoring trends across these leading networks, as well as providing our analysis into how they fit into the larger story of evolving cable and linear TV viewership.

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