Ad-supported cable business’ fortunes continue to decline unless it’s live programming – news and sports.
Cable news networks Fox News and MSNBC and sports-focused ESPN repeated as 1-2-3 atop all basic cable networks in total viewers in Live+7 Nielsen ratings for 2019. That is all the more impressive because live non-entertainment programming gets very little delayed viewing, and even more important for advertisers who put a premium on ad-supported content where commercials can’t be skipped.
Fox News was the top-rated basic cable network among total viewers for a fourth year in a row, with an average of 2.57 million in L+7. In second place was a news network on the other side of the deepening partisan fault line, MSNBC, with 1.80 million, according to Nielsen. CNN notched an average of 1 million.
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Fox News also reported its highest-rated primetime in history with an average of 2.5 million viewers. Hannity was the top-rated program in cable news for a third year in a row with 3.3 million viewers.
Even as they were far behind Fox News in total viewers, MSNBC and CNN talked up program highlights. MSNBC’s Deadline: White House with Nicole Wallace topped the 4 PM time slot in total viewers, while The 11th Hour with Brian Williams ranked first in that category for a third year in a row. Morning Joe, a frequent President Donald Trump target, averaged 1.1 million total viewers for what the network said was a record for the fourth year in a row, albeit it still trails Fox News’ Fox & Friends.
CNN topped MSNBC among the target news demographic of adults 25-54 in total day and daytime. The network’s highest viewership was for Cuomo Prime Time, with an average of 1.13 million total viewers and 290,000 in the news demo. That still trails Hannity and The Rachel Maddow Show, though. CNN also highlighted some of the ratings highs of its original series, including its most watched, The Movies.
In the adults 18-49 demographic, ESPN was No. 1 with an average of 730,000 viewers, followed by USA Network with 510,000 and TBS and TNT with 490,000.
Fox News (2.5 million) was a rare ad-supported network in positive territory year-to-year, up 3% from 2018 in viewers. The other two cable news networks posted single-digit declines, off 3% for MSNBC and off 9% for CNN in L+7 data.
The rest of the sports networks’ year-to-year declines also were limited to single digits except for NBC Sports Network (-20%), whose ratings fluctuate between Olympics and non-Olympics years. The net’s 2018 average featured extensive PyeongChang Winter Games coverage.
Compare that to double-digit viewership drops for most of the major entertainment cable networks. General entertainment networks relying heavily on scripted programming as well as nets targeting kids were hardest hit despite getting delayed viewing bumps.
USA, which was the most watched cable network for almost a decade, slipped another spot from No. 4 last year to No. 5 in total viewers (-18%). In adults 18-49, it remained No. 2 behind Fox News but was down 16%.
AMC was down 22% in viewers as its flagship drama The Walking Dead is starting to show its age FX was down 21%, TBS 17% and TNT 15%.
Many of today’s kids started using tablets and smart phones before they could talk and never got exposed to traditional TV – instead watching everything online.
Disney Channel, a former No. 2 basic cable network, posted the largest year-to-year viewership decline, 30%, to drop to No. 28, with Disney Jr. logging the second biggest year-to-year drop, 25%. Those are linear ratings declines as young viewers flock to the Disney Channel’s app or website to watch its shows.
What’s more, the Disney Channel library is among the most popular content on the new Disney+ platform, and Disney Channel produces original series for the new Disney streamer including a High School Musical show.
Adult Swim, a longtime young male demo powerhouse, dropped 23% in total viewers but fell only a slot, from No. 19 to No. 20, and its flagship series Rick and Morty is a strong streaming player, currently running on Hulu and also soon to be available on HBO Max.
Female-skewing cable networks are holding up relatively well, though crime-driven Oxygen was down 13%. Despite a 10% year-to-year decline in viewers, HGTV climbed a notch to an all-time-high No. 3 in total viewers. Revitalized by synergies with new corporate sibling HGTV and put under the same Discovery leadership, TLC was the year’s biggest percentage gainer, 13% in total viewers, jumping from No. 12 to No. 8. Hallmark Channel was up 4%, Lifetime and Bravo were each up 1%, and WEtv was up 9% amid a sea of declines.
There was a ratings retreat among networks catering to female black viewers — one of the most dependable basic cable demographics for a long time — with OWN, BET and TV One all posting double-digit declines.
The second biggest year-to-year percentage viewership increase behind TLC belonged to a little-known network, INSP (formerly PLT – The Inspirational Network), up 12% to move up from No. 30 to No. 23. Wholly owned by Inspiration Ministries, the network airs mostly rerun Western programming.
Looking ahead to 2020, there is little for entertainment basic networks to hope for as the downward trend in linear ratings is expected to continue, with many nets relying on streaming to offset declines. FX programming will be carried on Hulu (some of it exclusively), TNT and TBS programming will be available on HBO Max, and USA and Syfy shows are finding their way to the upcoming Peacock.
Meanwhile, 2020 will be another potentially banner year for the cable news networks. The expectation is that interest in the 2020 election will be sky high — “the most important election of our lifetimes,” as candidates frequently say. Traditionally, that has meant an uptick in news network viewership. That may be even more true n what is expected to be a close election featuring incumbent Trump, whose campaign and presidency have proven to be a potent ratings draw.
Here are the 2019 basic-cable rankings, in Live+7:
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