Cable News Wave Crests in First Quarter as All 3 Networks Claim Victory

Rachel Maddow, Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper
Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images; Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Rachel Maddow, Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper

The three main cable news channels scored more big ratings in the first quarter of 2021, but the past few weeks have taken a sharp downward turn.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all found reasons to crow about their performance in the first three months of the year: MSNBC had the most watched program in The Rachel Maddow Show and led the full day in total viewers. CNN had the biggest year-to-year gains and led both the full day and primetime in the key adults 25-54 demographic. Fox News ranked first across all of cable in primetime viewership for the fifth straight quarter.

The numbers for March, however, tell a different story. Fox News held the top spot across the board for the month, but all three networks fell by at least 19 percent in total-day viewers and by at least 40 percent in adults 25-54 compared to last year.

The news cycle had a lot to do with that: Last March featured the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States and the subsequent disruption of the economy and the Democratic presidential primary. Fox News lost 51 percent of its total-day audience and 34 percent of its primetime viewers from March 2020; CNN fell by 32 percent for the full day and 37 percent in primetime; and MSNBC was down 19 percent in both.

For the quarter as a whole, however, CNN and MSNBC both improved. MSNBC led total-day viewership with 1.38 million in Nielsen's "most current" ratings (a blend of delayed and same-day viewing) a 30 percent bump from last year. CNN was right behind at 1.35 million, up 63 percent year to year, while Fox News' 1.34 million viewers was off by 30 percent. In primetime, CNN (1.99 million viewers) and MSNBC (2.29 million) were up by 45 percent and 19 percent, respectively. While Fox News slid by 25 percent to 2.58 million viewers, it still maintained a decent lead in total viewers.

In the 25-54 demo, CNN led the quarter with an average of 352,000 viewers in that age range for the full day, compared to 225,000 for Fox, and 219,000 for MSNBC. In primetime it was CNN with 535,000, Fox News with 408,000, and MSNBC with 375,000.

The Rachel Maddow Show averaged 3.6 million viewers for the quarter, edging Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News (3.43 million) for the No. 1 spot in cable news. Fox's Hannity (3 million) and The Five (2.84 million) and MSNBC's The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell (2.65 million) rounded out the top five in total viewers. In the 25-54 demo, CNN's Cuomo Prime Time (658,000) led the way, ahead of the 618,000 for Maddow's show. CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 (611,000), Carlson (575,000) and CNN' Erin Burnett Outfront (544,000) followed.

Right-leaning outlet Newsmax, which made some big gains with its pro-Trump coverage in the aftermath of the election, didn't make many inroads in the first quarter. Its most watched show, Greg Kelly Reports, ranked 40th on cable news in total viewers (573,000) and 42nd in adults 25-54 (110,000).

March 31, 7:10 p.m. Updated to reflect CNN's Cuomo Prime Time leading the adults 25-54 demographic for the quarter. Earlier figures were inaccurate.