Fox News Holds No. 1, MSNBC Thrives During Wild Year for Cable News

Courtesy of MSNBC; Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images; Rob Kim/Getty Images
From left: Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Sean Hannity

Lineups exploded and were reborn, Rachel Maddow made a huge play and every detail of the Trump presidency was hashed and rehashed.

Tempestuous, on and off camera, cable news' first year following the Donald Trump presidency proved to be another exceptionally prosperous one.

Fox News Channel, flat in primetime despite seismic changes to its lineup, remains No. 1 by all measures. And MSNBC, courting interest in its frequently open criticism of the new administration, surged to give CNN a run for its proverbial money. The latter, the only network of the Big Three to see primetime losses, still enjoyed its most-watched year to date. (Each were at all-time total day audience highs, by the way.)

It turns out that Fox News does not need Bill O'Reilly — or Megyn Kelly, for that matter — to keep its conservative-leaning audience happy. And MSNBC, even though NBC News chairman Andy Lack and network president Phil Griffin had sought a less liberal image for its rival coverage, is a massive draw during a GOP administration. MSNBC beat CNN in total day viewership for the first time since 2012. Rachel Maddow is perhaps the true success story of 2017, scoring huge growth and multiple wins at 9 p.m. even before charges of sexual misconduct felled once-impervious time slot rival O'Reilly. And while O'Reilly's star status replacement Sean Hannity did end the year at No. 1 in both measures, total viewers and the sought-after news demo of adults 25-54, his victory may better reflect the loyalty of the FNC audience more than anything else.

The fact that all of this happened the year after a presidential election is, well, unprecedented: 2016 had been the most-watched year in cable news history. Gross viewership for 2017, in primetime and total day, bested it with respective growth of 7 and 15 percent (largely driven by MSNBC's lifts). This is an industry that typically sees election-year growth slip away after the first 100 days of a new administration. But the rocky Trump presidency has proved to be a source of evergreen interest.

Other winners include Tucker Carlson, whose post-Kelly move to FNC's primetime lineup saw him secure No. 3 status in the targeted news demo. FNC's Laura Ingraham made a successful segue of her own, albeit later on the calendar. For MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell's jump to No. 6 across all of cable news easily justified his June deal to stay on at the network. And CNN's Anderson Cooper, though a smaller overall draw in 2017, gave his network its lone top 10 telecast in the demo.

A surprise superlative goes to Brian Williams. The once-shamed NBC Nightly News host launched his 11 p.m. telecast in late 2016 as something of a temporary experiment, but he stuck it out. And, at that tricky hour, he managed to rank as the top telecast by both measures in cable news. Coming in as the 15th-highest-rated show across cable news when you air that late is no easy feat in an industry that lives and dies by its primetime, afternoon and early-morning coverage.

Cable news' current success, the bane of the commander in chief despite his reported obsessive viewing, shows little sign of slowing. The Trump administration lends itself to discussion and dissection even more than his campaign. Midterm elections, not to mention the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation into Russia's influence on the 2016 presidential race, all but assure 2018 is going to be another banner year for FNC, MSNBC and CNN — for better or for worse.

2017 Cable News Ratings (Comparisons With 2016)

Primetime

FNC: 2.42 million viewers (even); 488,000 adults 25-54 (+1 percent)
MSNBC: 1.62 million viewers (+50 percent); 370,000 adults 25-54 (+37 percent)
CNN: 1.06 million viewers (-15 percent); 370,000 adults 25-54 (-13 percent)

Total Day

FNC: 1.5 million viewers (+8 percent); 321,000 adults 25-54 (+15 percent)
MSNBC: 885,000 viewers (+47 percent); 203,000 adults 25-54 (+33 percent)
CNN: 783,000 viewers (+4 percent); 257,000 adults 25-54 (+11 percent)