With the end almost in sight, it is fair to say that 2015 will be known as the year when cable networks were either getting out the vote or taking a hit at least for many of the top players. For most in the pre-election year — a time where news networks always see generous bumps — there were dips and declines, with even top dog ESPN down about about 7% in primetime to 2.12 million viewers.
However, if you are Fox News Channel, Discovery Channel, HGTV and AMC, you are likely already popping the New Year’s champagne. Based on ratings data as of December 20, all four saw upticks in 2015, with Fox News rising 4% in primetime from 2014 to come finish second overall behind ESPN – a first for Fox News, a first for any news net, and a nice pre-20th anniversary present for the Roger Ailes-run channel.
With 1.808 million primetime viewers, USA Network will be the top ad-supported cable entertainment network for a 10th year in a row thanks in no small part to the muscle of WWE Monday Night Raw. Coming in third overall behind ESPN and Fox News, the NBCUniversal-owned net was still down 15% from 2014 in primetime viewership. TBS, Disney Channel and TNT came in the fourth, fifth and sixth in primetime viewers, with the latter down nearly 16%.
This year saw ratings drops from several top-tier networks, adding to market fears for the health of the pay-TV business that sent media stocks plummeting during the summer. Viacom, NBCUniversal, Turner Entertainment and A+E networks were lower across the board overall in 2015, the second year in a row cable ratings have seen significant downturns for the non-news channels.
As evidence: In ninth place, History took a big hit and dropped 19% from 2014 to 1.493 million primetime viewers while its sister network A&E fell 26% for 17th place. At No. 11 with 1.222 million viewers but no Sons Of Anarchy, FX was down 13%. At No. 30, MTV tied A&E for the biggest year-to-year percentage drop in viewership among the Top 40 cable networks, 26%.
In its first full year under Rich Ross, meanwhile, the revitalized Discovery Channel had its best year ever, with a rise of 10% from 2014. Coming off programming like the global event broadcast of the documentary Racing Extinction and the Naked And Afraid spinoff series Naked And Afraid: XL, Discovery was in seventh place overall for cable primetime viewership with 1.6 million. The gains also spread to Discovery’s siblings OWN (up 12% from 2014) and ID (up 10%). With strong performances from the likes of House Hunters, HGTV came in eighth for primetime viewership with 1.5 million, an 11% rise over last year.
For AMC, having the biggest series on TV also has its rewards, and the network saw upward movement in 2015 compared with the year before. With The Walking Dead plus the additional attention around the end of Mad Men, the cabler came in with an average audience of 1.381 million, up 4% over last year and put AMC at No. 10 overall in primetime. That’s up two spots from 2014 in a year that saw AMC air the top three cable debuts of all time: Fear The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and Into The Badlands.
Among the adults 18-49 demographic, AMC jumped three spots over last year to become the fourth-highest-rated cabler after ESPN, TBS, and USA. Always strong in the key demo, AMC rose 4% in Live+Same Day ratings and 9% in Live+3. This year marks the first time AMC has cracked the top 5 in 18-49s in what has to be one of the best years ever for a cable channel. Add to that the fact that when one looks at the most watched cable shows of 2014, the October 11 Season 6 premiere of TWD is the highest entry that isn’t football or those blood-sport GOP debates.
Which brings us to one of the biggest TV stories of 2015: cable news. Of course, additional viewing was to be expected, but what wasn’t expected were the jaw-dropping numbers thanks to the debates and, specifically, thanks to Donald Trump.
Fox News Channel bopped up from 2014 to a primetime average viewership of 1.837 million. Yes, they saw gains on top news shows like The O’Reilly Factor, which was the most-watched and highest-rated of the cable genre for 14th and 15th year in a row, respectively. However, Fox News also had a new ratings monster with the August 6 GOP debate: The Republican get-together, the first of the election cycle, copped a whopping 24 million viewers, the biggest basic cable audience ever – and you know who was at the heart of that debate and easily its biggest draw.
CNN, meanwhile, jumped 39% year to year, to 718,000 in primetime. The network’s September GOP debate gripped 23 million, the biggest audience since the news network launched in 1980. Its more recent GOP debate, the fifth in the election cycle — following two on CNBC (14 million) and Fox Business News (13.5 million) — averaged and also impressive 18 million viewers, solidifying The GOP Debates as TV’s most popular new series this season. Trump takes credit, recently modestly telling Jimmy Kimmel that his participation in the GOP race for the White House has turned the franchise into a ratings Super Bowl.
“Last [election] cycle, if you had a million, or 2 million, it was like a big event – frankly the networks didn’t want the debates. And then ‘something’ happened this cycle,” Trump simpered. “And Fox [News Channel] had 24 million [viewers] and CNN had the biggest audience in the history of CNN and, last night got 18 million.”
“They should pay me – a lot!” he concluded.
Fox Business’ GOP debate helped fuel that relatively young network’s 109% primetime audience spike this year compared to last. The other Ailes-run cable net averaged 98K this year in primetime, versus 47K last year. CNBC jumped 36% in primetime year to year, though its GOP debate shares credit with the addition of reality series such as Jay Leno’s Garage and ABC’s Shark Tank repeats. CNBC clocked 389K in primetime this year compared to last year’s 285K.
Here are the year-to-date cable primetime rankings (total viewers and adults 18-49) as of December 2O.
Deadline’s Lisa De Moraes and Amanda N’Duka contributed to this report.