Fox News Wraps Most-Watched Year With Postelection Momentum

Megyn Kelly (Fox News), Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC)-Split-  H 2016
Courtesy of Fox News; Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images; MSNBC

Cable news' remarkable 2016 defied most television trends. In a time of cord-cutting, shifts to digital news consumption and widespread ratings deterioration, this past year's coverage of the presidential race and Donald Trump's unprecedented media circus made it the genre's biggest in a four-decade history.

With final Nielsen Media numbers in for 2016, gross primetime ratings were up by 65 percent across the main trio of Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. Primetime viewership surged by a comparably impressive 57 percent. Recent years have seen the at least one of the cable news networks suffering some drops, either in primetime or total day, but 2016 was a year without a negative narrative — at least where the numbers are concerned.

There was a narrowing of the margins between the different networks, but the rankings held with history. Fox News Channel maintained No. 1 status across all day parts, among total viewers and adults 25-54 and even managed to pull the coup of topping ESPN as cable's most watched network in primetime for the year. FNC bested the perennial cable victory by a decisive 26 percent with an average 2.43 million viewers watching between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. every night. The first for the news network, or any news network, had it finish the year behind only broadcast's Big Four.

"Most watched year ever" status was duplicated by CNN and MSNBC. But most importantly for CNN, the 36-year-old channel managed to add the most adults 25-54 from 2015. The network's primetime average was up by nearly 200,000 viewers in the key news demographic to come within 48,000 of FNC — its closest delivery since 2008. CNN also managed to spend several months atop all of cable news among adults 25-54.

This time last year, MSNBC was closing out 2015 as the only cable news network without any growth after failing to duplicate the early successes of FNC's and CNN's coverage of the intraparty races for the Republicans and the Democrats. The narrative is much different now. MSNBC saw the most percentage growth year over year, almost doubling its primetime showing in the key demo.

Network brass have been the first to admit that 2016 was a blessed anomaly in regard to the bottom line. Linear ratings climbed to heights no longer thought possible, and advertising revenue climbed with them. Nobody expects that momentum to carry into 2017, no matter how much attention surrounds the contentious inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. But the time since the Nov. 8 election presents a potentially telling narrative of how viewers might plan to watch moving forward.

The past seven weeks have seen FNC's ratings continue to climb from a year ago, further separating it from CNN. In fact, since the election, CNN is the only cable news network to see its primetime showing drop from the comparable period in 2015. The network is down 28 percent in the key demo and 25 percent among total viewers. In CNN's defense, it's the only cable network that had aired a debate (13.3 million viewers) during that window last year, but it doesn't change that both FNC and MSNBC are pacing well head of 2015 — and, in some cases, even beating 2016 averages.

Looking to 2017, there is a lot of uncertainty about what a Trump presidency will mean for the cable news nets — both in how they cover it and how America will choose to watch. So as we finally close the book on 2016, at least we can examine how the unreleting year of coverage panned out. See below for a full data dump from the year in cable news.

2016 Cable News Ratings (Comparisons with 2015)

FNC: 2.43 million viewers (+36 percent); 481k adults 25-54 (+42 percent)
CNN: 1.25 million viewers (+76 percent); 423k adults 25-54 (+80 percent)
MSNBC: 1.1 million viewers (+36 percent); 270k adults 25-54 (+87 percent)

Total Day
FNC: 1.4 million viewers (+29 percent); 280k adults 25-54 (+36 percent)
CNN: 753k viewers (+54 percent); 232k adults 25-54 (+56 percent)
MSNBC: 603k viewers (+71 percent); 153k adults 25-54 (+72 percent)

2016 Cable News Ratings Since Election (Comparisons with 2015)

FNC: 2.6 million viewers (+31 percent); 511k adults 25-54 (+34 percent)
CNN: 811k viewers (-25 percent); 266k adults 25-54 (-28 percent)
MSNBC: 898k viewers (+42 percent); 208k adults 25-54 (+32 percent)

Total Day
FNC: 1.7 million viewers (+30 percent); 337k adults 25-54 (+37 percent)
CNN: 651k viewers (-2 percent); 192k adults 25-54 (-4 percent)
MSNBC: 527k viewers (+30 percent); 127k adults 25-54 (+23 percent)