Network Newscasts Keep Up Ratings Momentum During Pandemic

The nightly broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC are drawing their biggest audiences in years, eclipsing their cable competition by wide margins.
ABC News
'World News Tonight' anchor David Muir

The three main cable news channels averaged a little above 10 million viewers in the 6 p.m. hour in the week of April 13. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC are all experiencing ratings surges in the hour as they cover (in whole or in part) President Donald Trump's daily press briefings about the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It's an impressive tally, one that's up by some 4 million viewers from a month earlier. It's also small potatoes compared the three network evening newscasts, which averaged almost three times as many viewers — 29.67 million — in the week of April 13. The most-watched show in cable news last week, Fox News' Special Report With Bret Baier (5.77 million daily viewers), fell more than a million people short of the third-place network newscast, CBS Evening News (7.52 million, including a re-airing at 4 a.m. the next day). 

The three network newscasts have been reaching bigger audiences than they have in several years in the five weeks since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and widespread stay-at-home mandates went into effect in mid-March. News coverage across broadcast and cable, and across dayparts, has drawn bigger ratings than usual in that time, but the tallies for the nightly network newscasts are on a different plane.

Since March 16, ABC's World News Tonight With David Muir, NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt and CBS Evening News With Norah O'Donnell have averaged a combined 30.27 million daily viewers. That's a 39 percent jump over the same five-week period in 2019, translating to 8.5 million more viewers spread across the three networks.

As it has for more than a year, World News Tonight has led the way, averaging 12.36 million viewers over that time. Last week, the five nightly broadcasts ranked second through sixth across all of Nielsen-measured TV in viewers, trailing only the 13.5 million who watched CBS' stalwart NCIS in primetime (not including the multi-network One World: Together at Home special). It's up by almost 50 percent from a year ago.

NBC Nightly News has averaged 10.66 million viewers over the past five weeks, up 39 percent year-to-year. CBS Evening News has grown by about 24 percent to 7.25 million viewers. The ABC and NBC figures include re-airings after the initial 6:30 p.m. ET broadcast; Nielsen does not roll up the 4 a.m. CBS re-airing into the network's average.

The week of March 16 brought the highest combined viewership for the three networks (32.16 million), and it has ebbed and flowed some in the weeks since. In each of the past five weeks, however, the three have had a combined audience at least 30 percent larger than the comparable week last year. Network evening news hasn't drawn such consistently big numbers in more than a decade.