How the 2016 Presidential Election Benefited Most Everyone Who Covered It

$2 billion in ad sales for cable news and record ratings for those who cover politics the most.
Courtesy of Fox News; Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images; MSNBC

Plenty of Americans on both side of the political spectrum will look back on the 2016 election with enduring fatigue — and perhaps more than a little horror at how inescapable the presidential campaign remained for so long.

These beleaguered masses won't likely include TV executives. Those who benefited from programming even tangentially election-related coverage will probably recall it with the dewy-eyed fondness normal people reserve for their college years. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves perhaps put it best back in February, when he was asked about the wall-to-wall coverage of then-GOP frontrunner Donald Trump: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."

Moonves' sentiment can be extended from just Trump to opponent Hillary Clinton and the entire circus. It also includes many, many non-CBS-affiliated networks. The big night hasn't even arrived and this election's ratings dominance is already without precedence. Starting from the astronomical 24 million tune-in for the first GOP primary debate in August 2015, when this race was almost quaint, to the October highs for the cable news networks, the 2016 election has been a postmodern reality show without rival.

But who's benefited the most — and how? As coverage reaches critical mass, THR looks at how the different networks and shows have fared during coverage pile-on.

Cable News
No one would argue that cable news isn't the biggest winner of the 2016 cycle. With gross primetime viewership for CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC up 50 percent from 2015, and 55 percent in the key demo, all three are on track for record ratings. "This is the best year in the history of cable news, … for everybody," CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker recently told THR. "We've all benefited."

Cable news ad sales are expected to reach nearly $2 billion for the entire year, per SNL Kagan. That's a 15 percent improvement from 2015 and a thrilling 25 percent jump from the last presidential cycle (2012). CNN alone has reaped an additional $100 million than originally forecasted. It's quite justified. All three have seen ratings climb by double-digit margins. Year-to-date, Fox News Channel retains its lead among adults 25-54 and total viewers, while CNN has posted the most volume growth, nabbing a historic demo steak in October, and MSNBC has seen the most percentage improvement.

All three are in such good shape, the real victor now will be who drops the least in the coming months.

Late Night
Talk shows have ben a mixed bag. Believe it or not, fall 2015 actually reaped greater election rewards for the late-night pack. The broadcast shows were aggressively booking presidential hopefuls — more than 20 were in the running this time last year — netting week after week of high-profile visits from the heated intra-party races. (Stephen Colbert also set a high bar with his strong premiere showing in David Letterman's old roost.)

The current slim pickings of just Trump and Clinton, each of whom have made only one late-night appearance in the last two months of the race, have left Colbert and the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) to largely rely on jokes alone. And, perhaps a sign of who's been most interested in this election, younger viewership is down by greater percentages than total viewers.

The rankings have held steady as well. Fallon's Tonight Show still holds his decisive lead by all measures. Most steady are Seth Meyers and James Corden. Meyers, the broadcast host who's been the most laser-focused on the election, is virtually even with a .46 rating in the key demo and 1.6 million viewers. And CBS' Corden, the least political of the pack, is similarly unmoved with a 0.34 rating and a nightly audience of 1.3 million.

Cable has seen the most movement. Comedy Central's Trevor Noah has improved his audience from his debut a year ago, thanks to rigorous election coverage. And HBO weekly outings Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Real Time With Bill Maher, both of which lean heavy on politics, are enjoying ratings highs. Oliver now averages 5.6 million viewers per episode and Real Time is pulling its strongest showing since its first season 13 years ago with 4.4 million.

Broadcast News
The trio of evening news telecasts — ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News — are incredibly steady compared to last year. Since Sept. 19, all three are within 4 percentage points of last year's scores by all measures. It would seem that no one has gotten a "lift" from election coverage, but there are two noteworthy growers. David Muir's World News is up among total viewers, enough to top perennial victor NBC — 8.3 million to 8.1 million viewers. NBC's Lester Holt, moderator of the first Clinton-Trump debate, has meanwhile grown his showing among targeted adults 25-54 to more than 2 million nightly news demo viewers.

Morning show winners break down similarly. NBC's Today show is still on top among adults 25-54, recently enjoying its greatest October margin of victory over ABC's Good Morning America since 2011. And GMA's total audience win remains uncontested. It's pulling 4.5 million daily viewers this season.

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