Speaking the words “cable news” almost instantly sparks controversy. Depending on your political leanings and affiliations, you may have one network you love and another (or more) that you hate. Or, perhaps you are one of the many Americans who despise the medium altogether, choosing instead to lament the decline of traditional print and television news.
However, no matter your opinion on cable news, it’s impossible to discount its influence. Still a relatively new phenomenon, at least within the overall context of cable television, cable news rose to prominence over the past few decades. Now, it is a staple in the American (and world) news landscape.
But while cable news managed to quickly become a top choice for Americans looking for the news, its moment to shine may have already passed us by. There are several reasons for this, ranging from a general distrust of the cable news model to the rise in online news sources, but they all tell the same story: cable news is slowly losing ground. Yet 2020 was a record year for nearly all cable news channels, reminding us that despite the slowdown, they remain an important source of information.
To learn more about where cable news is today and where it’s heading in the future, check out these 30 stats:
Before we dive into some of the numbers relating to the top networks, here are some stats.
However, it can be difficult to determine exactly how bad the decline is overall or whether there was just a slow news year. When compared to 2020, 2021 wasn’t nearly as busy of a news year (we’ll get into that more shortly). There were no huge presidential elections or dramas, and COVID-19 has become something of a normal part of life compared to the shutdowns of 2020.
Consider some of the numbers comparing 2020 and 2021:
CNN is taking the worst hit, but this decline in ratings is something a lot of news executives would be terrified about. While there are natural drops, there is a larger trend in which more people are using online sources of information. How cable news outlets respond to this will be a story in itself for the rest of the decade.
One of the hallmarks of cable news is that it is not confined to just a nightly broadcast. Instead, these networks are on the air, presenting news, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their primetime shows remain their bread and butter. Still, cable news networks also command a strong daytime audience.
Fox News usually sees around 1.8 million viewers, while CNN brings in 1.2 million and MSNBC attracts another million. Once the data for 2021 comes in, we’ll see once more that people will watch at any time and many people still keep it on.
However, cable news is not the most popular daytime show. Those honors go to talk shows such as The View, Live with Kelly and Ryan, and Dr. Phil, which all have audiences of more than 2.5 million.
Also, another thing to consider when looking at these numbers is engagement. How many times have you walked into a business or store only to find the news on in the background? Probably many. While this counts for ratings, it’s worth wondering who is really watching these shows.
Nevertheless, cable news networks continue to garner large audiences both during prime time and daytime hours.
Despite the popularity of cable news and other news broadcasts, a relatively small group of Americans relies on this medium as its primary source of news. To be exact, just 15 percent of people say TV is their number one source of news.
Ahead of cable news are news websites and apps (28 percent) and social media (17 percent). Interestingly, national networks are preferred by just 14 percent (despite higher viewership numbers) and local TV stations are used as often as cable news. Just six percent of Americans rely on the radio as their primary source of news, and only three percent choose print.
These numbers clearly demonstrate the changing landscape of the news industry. Print and radio are giving way to television, but television is also giving way to the Internet, which has quickly replaced all other mediums as our top source for news.
Americans’ dependence on social media for news is an interesting development, especially considering the credibility of many of the stories found on these platforms.
Although 2020 will go down as the toughest year yet for a lot of people and industries, that is not the case for cable news networks.
Between the Coronavirus pandemic and the US presidential election, all three of the major cable news networks had record years in 2020. At one point, Fox News was getting more than 4 million viewers tuning into its prime-time broadcasts.
This reversed the trend of declining viewership that had persisted since approximately 2010. But all indications are that this was a “blip.” At the beginning of 2021, viewership numbers have started to drop back to what they were before the pandemic.
It turns out that breaking these records translated into cable news networks becoming the most popular cable channels in 2020. It beat out mainstays such as TLC and HGTV.
Now, CBS remains the most-watched network in America. But among shows that are only available with a cable TV subscription, the news networks stood out in 2020. It’s expected, however, that this will not be the case in 2021, for the same reasons that overall viewership numbers have also started to drop.
Another indicator that cable news may be in decline is that the bulk of its audience comes from the 55+ age bracket. To be specific, 69 percent of Fox News viewers are over 50, and 74 percent of those who watch MSNBC fall into this category.
Interestingly, just 43 percent of CNN’s viewers are more than 50-years-old. Their largest demographic is 30-49-year-olds, which make up 37 percent of their audience.
This isn’t too surprising, especially since older people tend to consume more news anyway. But with younger generations increasingly turning to the internet and apps to get their news, it’s worth wondering where cable news will find new viewers.
One of the biggest things that comes up when discussing cable news is credibility and trustworthiness, both of which are linked to bias.
If you’ve never watched cable news, it doesn’t take long to figure out that each network has a different slant, and that slant is not so subtle. Specifically, Fox News has a reputation for leaning to the right of the political spectrum, making it more conservative, whereas MSNBC and CNN are known for being more leftist, i.e. liberal.
This has happened primarily because of money. As news outlets have faced increasing pressure to remain profitable, they have found it most effective to cater to one particular audience rather than try to present the news in a balanced, objective way. The consequence of this, though, has been that these networks are losing credibility among Americans, and this is proving to have far-reaching consequences.
Here are some stats about cable news and credibility/trustworthiness:
Traditionally, the news was where you went to find out about the world. Viewers trusted they were being told the truth, and distrusting the news was seen as being contrarian. However, as this number suggests, things have changed considerably. Now, more than two-thirds of Americans question whether or not the news their watching is real or fake.
To put things in perspective, this ranks the US 5th out of 40 countries in a study conducted by Reuters. Only the people of Brazil, Portugal, Kenya, and South Africa are less sure what they’re being told is the truth. Across all the countries in the study, the average was 56 percent, suggesting that more than half of the world’s population doesn’t know what to believe when it comes to the news.
However, in this same study, Facebook and social media remain the biggest concern for “fake news.” This makes sense considering the editorial requirements of these platforms; anyone can publish whatever they want whenever they want.
A perfect example of Americans not fully trusting the news can be found in the events of this past year. Despite turning to cable news more than ever to stay abreast of the events of the pandemic, more than half of Americans believe cable news networks exaggerated the event.
Perhaps, though, this is the most ringing endorsement of cable news’ approach yet; it seems Americans do have a penchant for sensationalism. So, while they may not trust or believe the information, they still like tuning in.
One thing to note is that some cable news networks, particularly Fox News, were accused of not just being biased but of actually spreading misinformation. If true, this should raise some serious questions about the role of cable news in today’s society.
Another shocking stat that speaks to the credibility of cable news in America is that most Americans when asked which network they trust the most, choose a foreign site over any of the domestic ones. Specifically, the BBC is generally considered to be the most trusted TV news channel in the United States.
Many people argue that cable news has lost some of its credibility because the channels began skewing one way or another in terms of bias. But there’s an argument to be made that this was not the way to go, especially since 60 percent of Americans prefer news sources that have no point of view.
This compares with 30 percent who want to watch the news in line with their point of view and 10 percent who want news that contradicts their existing beliefs and opinions.
But in comparison to other countries, the US does prefer biased news. In Germany, for example, 80 percent of people want the news to be biased. This suggests that objectivity is in fact not a major selling point in the US, which could in part explain why cable news networks have gone in the direction they have gone.
If we break these numbers down a bit more, though, the picture becomes a bit clearer. As compared to consumers of other news mediums (print and social media), cable news watchers are most likely to want to consume information in line with their point of view. In total, 42 percent of people feel this way, as compared to 35 percent for social media and 28 percent for print news sources. Again, this may help explain the evolution of cable news over the years.
As mentioned earlier, money and profit have played major roles in determining the direction of cable news over the years. And nothing proves this more than the following graph, derived from Pew Research Center statistics, which compares the growth in newsroom spending and overall revenue since 2016:
As you can see, while newsroom spending (most of which goes to paying journalists and reporters) has remained relatively stable while profits have grown considerably, especially in the case of Fox News. All this does is show that while these channels still remain important sources of news, they are only interested in producing news that will bring them new viewers and raise their overall earnings.
Now that you have an idea of the overall cable news landscape, let’s dig into some numbers about each network.
Founded in 1996, Fox News is, together with MSNBC, the “new kid on the block.” However, as mentioned above, it is also the most popular and also the most profitable.
It is typically considered to be a right-leaning news source, and it is also a subsidiary of News Corporation, which is owned and run by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Here are some stats to consider about Fox News:
Of the six-plus million people who watch cable news every night, more tune into Fox News than any other channel. In fact, in 2020, Fox News averaged more than 3 million nightly viewers, which also set a record for the network.
In addition to being the most-watched cable news network in America, it is also the most profitable. In 2020, total revenues reached nearly $3 billion, which was also a record year for the network. In total, this represents a bit more than half of all the revenue generated by the three major cable news networks, further proof of Fox News’ dominance in this market.
Over the years, Fox News has faced considerable criticism for what many call a “right-winged slant.” However, whether or not that is reality depends heavily on who you ask, mainly because Fox News is viewed as equally trustworthy as untrustworthy. Here’s a breakdown of how people view Fox News’ credibility, using numbers from Statista:
Not surprisingly, given its reputation, but trust in Fox News depends heavily on your political affiliation. To be more specific, 65 percent of Republicans trust Fox News as their primary news source. Conversely, 61 percent of Democrats distrust Fox News, suggesting the network is succeeding in presenting news that appeals to one group but not to another.
In addition, when it comes to political news, 60 percent of Republicans turn to Fox News. Around 23 percent of Democrats, however, still tune into Fox News to get political news, perhaps just to check out what’s being said on the other side of the aisle.
One thing worth noting is that Fox News gets a disproportionate amount of its viewers from older, white Americans. Specifically, 40 percent of those who say they count on Fox News as their main source are 65 or older. Across the cable news industry, the average is just 21 percent.
In addition, Fox News audiences are largely white. Around 90 percent of the audience identifies as non-Hispanic White. Across the whole country, this group makes up just 65 percent of adults.
In addition, the viewpoints expressed on Fox News, as well as those shared by the network’s viewers, “stand out” in comparison to opinions and perspectives seen elsewhere. For example, around 63 percent of US adults who primarily watch Fox News say that Donald Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic was “excellent.” Across the US, just 24 percent of people hold this opinion.
In addition, Fox News viewers tend to have a much higher opinion of former President Donald Trump than those watching other networks and viewers overall. Specifically, 71 percent of Fox News viewers gave the president a positive rating when asked in 2019, as compared to just 24 percent in the overall survey.
In the days after the election, Fox News initially supported Donald Trump’s claims that the election results were fraudulent, an assertion that has since been proven to be abundantly false. Eventually, Fox News pivoted, but not before it was slapped with a $1.6 billion lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, the manufacturer of the voting machines the network incorrectly claimed to be faulty.
Fox News launched in 1996 and overtook CNN as the most-watched cable news network in America just a few years after that. And it held that spot until January 2021. To be more specific, many Fox News viewers jumped ship after the insurrection launched by Trump supporters on the US Capitol, still convinced the election had been stolen.
In general, this exposed a bit of an issue with Fox News’ approach. While it has always been considered right-leaning, there had been a line. But after this event, many viewers felt it wasn’t far enough to the right, choosing to get their news from even more conservative outlets such as Breitbart and One America News Network.
However, it will take some time to learn the real impacts of this, for, since January 2021, Fox News has managed to reclaim its top spot amongst cable news networks.
Launched by Atlanta-based media mogul Ted Turner in 1980, the “Cable News Network”, also known as CNN, was the first cable news network in America. After taking more than a decade to earn the trust of American viewers, its popularity exploded in the early 1990s when CNN journalists were able to provide exclusive coverage of the Desert Storm conflict taking place in the Middle East.
For around 16 years, CNN faced little competition. But then came Fox News and MSNBC. And while it has since lost ground to Fox News, CNN remains one of the biggest cable news stations not only in the US but in the entire world.
Currently, CNN is owned by Warner Media, which is a subsidiary of AT&T.
Here are some stats about the oldest cable news network in the US:
Despite being the oldest, CNN is not the most popular. In fact, it grabs an audience that is just a little bit less than half the size of the one brought in by its top competitor, Fox News.
Just as its audience size is about half that of Fox News, so too is its yearly revenue. In 2020, CNN generated around $1.6 billion in revenue, whereas its competitor brought in a bit less than $3 billion.
One area where CNN does in fact beat out its competitor is in its global reach. Whereas Fox News relies mainly on a domestic audience, CNN is available in more than 200 countries. It has 43 total bureaus, 11 in the US and 32 around the world. And, overall, the station is available in more than 300 million homes.
CNN also has the edge when it comes to online news. It remains the most popular online news platform in the world, receiving more than 200 million unique website hits each month.
So, while it may be losing out to Fox in the US market, it makes up for it in other parts of the world, and in other mediums.
Available in more than 200 countries, reaches more than 300 million homes, and gets more than 200 million unique website hits each month.
In contrast to Fox News, which has an audience of mainly Republicans, more than half of all CNN viewers identify as Democrats, which can at least partly explain why the network has often been labeled as “left-leaning.”
Overall, 67 percent of Democrats rely on CNN as their top news choice, and 53 percent of Democrats go to CNN for their political news. However, unlike Fox News, which dominates among Republicans, Democrats seem to equally prefer other news sources, such as NBC, CBC, and ABC News, as well as PBS.
Overall, people seem to view CNN as more credible than Fox News, but the network does not enjoy universal trust. Here is a breakdown of how people view CNN’s credibility, using numbers from Statista:
The third most popular cable news network in the United States is MSNBC, which is a subsidiary of COMCAST NBCUNIVERSAL. It too was launched in 1996 (alongside Fox News) and was in many ways meant to be a liberal response to Rupert Murdoch’s new venture. However, it has never managed to rise out of the third spot, routinely losing out in ratings to both Fox News and CNN.
During the 2020 pandemic, though, The Rachel Maddow Show ranked as the sixth most popular cable news show, ahead of CNN’s leading program, Cuomo Prime Time.
Here are some stats about MSNBC:
While this puts the network as number two out of three, it still commands a sizable audience each night, and this is not counting its daytime viewers.
Again, because of its smaller audience size, MSNBC makes less money than its competitors. But it is still profitable, and in 2020, the network brought in more than $1 billion in revenue.
When it comes to trust and credibility, the story with MSNBC is a curious one. It is simultaneously the “least trusted” and also the “least distrusted” of all the major cable news networks.
To be more specific, 34 percent of Americans say they trust MSNBC, which is lower than both Fox News (43 percent) and CNN (43 percent), but just 26 percent of people say they don’t trust it. This is in comparison to 40 percent for Fox News and 32 percent for CNN.
What this means remains unclear. But it seems as though MSNBC has managed to put itself right in the middle of being trustworthy and untrustworthy.
One thing that MSNBC does have over CNN and Fox News is that it attracts the best-educated audience. Overall, 45 percent of MSNBC viewers have at least a college degree, whereas 40 percent of CNN’s audience and 27 percent of Fox News’ audience have the same level of education.
Again, it’s not obvious what this means, but it does seem that those with more advanced degrees turn to MSNBC as their preferred source of cable news.
Cable news is still very much news. While viewership numbers have been dropping over the past few years, 2020 was a big year. Yet all three networks have already given up some of their gains from what was truly an action-packed year (at least when it comes to the news). This, plus the continued growth in internet and social media news remains a threat to the future of cable news. But while we don’t know what the future may hold, cable news remains a powerful, important, and profitable source of information in America, and it’s capable of shaping the opinions, beliefs, and direction of the nation.