Fox News Wraps Another Year Atop Ratings Heap, CNN Primetime Suffers

Though all three of the big cable news nets endure drops from the 2012 election-year lift, Jeff Zucker's rebranding Turner net hits an evening low but finds stability in total day.
Courtesy of Fox News
Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly

Cable news had quite the dramatic year. Top-rated Fox News Channel retooled its primetime block for the first time in a decade, CNN began a hefty rebrand under new chief Jeff Zucker and MSNBC, reclaiming the No. 2 slot after a muddy second quarter, made moves of its own and closed out 2013 with several high-profile departures.

All three were down in the closely watched primetime race compared to 2012, when the trio reaped the customary viewership boon from a presidential election year, though last year's rankings remain intact.

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Between 8 and 11 p.m. ET, FNC again came out on top with an average 1.774 million viewers -- 297,000 of them in the news demo of adults 25-54. Those are drops of 13 and 30 percent respectively, with the network boosting its performance in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to its new primetime lineup.

Megyn Kelly's entry at 9 p.m. might be the most significant anchor move during the tumultuous year. The Kelly File's splashy segue into Sean Hannity's old time slot lifted the hour 13 percent among adults 25-54 compared to year-to-date numbers and a more impressive 23 percent in total viewers.

MSNBC ranked second in primetime with an average 645,000 viewers and 203,000 adults 25-54. Those losses, both 29 percent drops, were from the network's highest-rated year on record. MSNBC's biggest primetime change was the move of Chris Hayes into the 8 p.m. hour, where growth has been slow, but consolidating Chris Matthews' Hardball to just one outing at 7 p.m. has lifted viewers.

Still a work in progress is CNN. The third-place primetime network, which admittedly had a strong first half of the year thanks to coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Oklahoma tornadoes and the now-infamous "poop cruise," has lagged in recent months. It is on track to hit an all-time low in total primetime viewership (578,000). That's down 15 percent from last year, with a 16 percent drop in the demo (187,000).

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As for rankings across all cable nets, FNC came in sixth in primetime and fourth in total day. MSNBC placed 29th in primetime, but it fell short of CNN in total day (30th compared to 28th). CNN's primetime rank was 31st.

Total day saw smaller dips from the previous year. Dominant FNC, averaging 1.101 million viewers and 223,000 adults 25-54, was off 4 percent in total viewers and 18 percent in the demo. Of note are two of the net's youngest series, The Five and Red Eye, which posted their best audiences since launching. The bid to maintain its morning edge also saw FNC grab Elisabeth Hasselbeck from The View to co-host Fox & Friends. Since her arrival, the show is up 7 percent in viewers and 10 percent in adults 25-54.

With the exception of a new Anderson Cooper hour at 10 p.m., the bigger changes for CNN have taken place earlier in the day. The Lead With Jake Tapper, in the works before Zucker's arrival, is averaging second place in its hour. And likely the biggest launch, New Day, which is up a notch from last year's showing in the a.m. hours, has suffered particularly of late -- averaging fewer than 300,000 viewers. Launch-to-date it's down 18 percent in the demo from Early Start in the beginning of the year. (The half-hour reboot of Crossfire has also been slow out of the gate.) Total day viewership improved on CNN, up 1 percent to 419,000 viewers, while the demo held at 134,000.

MSNBC recently lost commentator Martin Bashir, who followed Alec Baldwin off the net after both made contentious comments, but with that exception, the network's day saw comparatively little talent movement this year. Averaging 397,000 viewers and 131,000 adults 25-54, drops of 20 and 21 percent, the network was edged out by CNN in both measures.

Outside the big three, HLN had a banner year thanks in large part to fevered interest in the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials earlier in 2013. The network was up double digits by all measures, though don't anticipate future high-profile cases to give it the same boost. Zucker has said the fourth-place net will soon move away from courtroom fare.