Pandemic, Election Push Cable News Channels to Peak in 2020

Tucker Carlson (Fox News), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) and Chris Cuomo (CNN)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images

In February, Fox News had its most watched month ever — until March, when it broke that record. The new record would fall six more times between May and October. In primetime, the network set a new viewership high every single month from January to November.

CNN and MSNBC had similar stories: Both outlets touted their "best month ever" multiple times in 2020. A year that included the the impeachment of a sitting president, a global pandemic, massive social and racial justice protests and a historic presidential election sparked huge growth at the three biggest cable news outlets. While most of traditional TV took a sizable step backward this year, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all grew their audiences significantly.

Through Dec. 14, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC were up a collective 46 percent over last year in total day audience — averaging 1.42 million viewers — and up by 51 percent in primetime (2.52 million) over 2019. Viewership in the key news demographic of adults 25-54 grew even more: 57 percent for the full day and 66 percent in prime.

The year also pointed to a sea change in where viewers turn to get their news. While the three broadcast evening news shows still outdraw every cable news program, the cable triumvirate routinely outdrew ABC, CBS and NBC for coverage of big events. Across the eight nights of the two major political conventions, the three general election debates and on election night, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC drew an average audience 73 percent higher than their broadcast counterparts.

Fox News kept its long-standing position as the most watched of the three (and all of cable, a spot it's held for five years running) and delivered a first for cable news by posting a year-long primetime average of more than 3 million viewers (3.62 million, to be precise). It averaged 1.89 million viewers for the full day in 2020, up 35 percent year to year.

Hannity was the most watched news program across cable with 4.4 million viewers, edging the 4.37 million for Tucker Carlson Tonight. The latter finished first among adults 25-54, averaging 798,000 people in that age group.

MSNBC, which has grown its audience for six consecutive years, finishes 2020 ranked second to Fox News on all of cable in total viewers in both primetime (2.15 million viewers) and total day (1.24 million). The Rachel Maddow Show averaged 3.4 million viewers for the year, its best ever, and had its single most watched episode ever on July 16 (5.23 million viewers) for an interview with Mary Trump, Donald Trump's niece and an outspoken critic of the president.

Ten of the network's 11 most watched months ever fell in 2020, topped by November. All 12 months of the year rank in the top 25 in MSNBC's history, which dates to 1996.

CNN ranks below the other two networks in total viewers, averaging 1.79 million people in primetime and 1.13 million for the full day in 2020. It does, however, finish ahead of MSNBC in adults 25-54 and had the highest percentage growth of all three. In total viewers, the network improved by 85 percent in primetime and 75 percent in total day compared to 2019. It also more than doubled its primetime average in adults 25-54 and grew by 91 percent in the news demo for the full day.

CNN has also had a breakthrough since Election Day: From Nov. 4 through Dec. 14, it has led cable news in total day audience and adults 25-54 and has inched ahead of MSNBC in primetime.