Among the big three cable news networks, Fox Corp.’s FOXA right-leaning Fox News continues to reign in the ratings, leaving its left-leaning rivals, Comcast Corp.’s CMCSA MSNBC and Warner Bros. Discovery’s WBD CNN lagging behind.
At the end of the first quarter, Nielsen reported Fox News averaged 2.86 million viewers for primetime programming, up 19% from the same month one year earlier, while MSNBC averaged 1.28 million, down 29% from the previous year, and CNN averaged 1.22 million, a 1% bump-up.
Both MSNBC and CNN gained new viewers when Donald Trump became president — Americans who were skeptical (or worse) of his administration’s policies found sympathetic voices within the two networks’ programming. But when Trump left the White House in January 2021, the absence of the orange-hued bête noire as the central focus of their coverage resulted in an audience defection. Nielsen noted that in the first six months of the Biden administration CNN lost approximately 65% of its total viewers and CNN lost 49%; Fox also recorded a loss, albeit a smaller 12% share.
Since the end of the Trump administration, both MSNBC and CNN tried to emphasize stories designed to generate the same level of agitation among left-leaning viewers who were provoked by Trump, but nothing seemed to stick — the meandering progress of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection never made for absorbing television, and the so-called culture wars coverage seemed shrill to audience members who were neither canceled nor interested in canceling others. CNN’s uptick in viewers during the first quarter of this year could be credited to its ongoing coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
However, Monday night’s surprise news over a leaked first draft of a possible U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling triggered a level of outrage on the left not seen since the end of the Trump presidency. While Fox News’ coverage emphasized the leak itself, MSNBC and CNN’s coverage repeatedly questioned the impact the eradication of Roe v. Wade would have on American women.
But can MSNBC and CNN use the Roe v. Wade story to regain the viewers that left them with the end of the Trump White House? Benzinga queried three well-regarded media analysts on the topic, but their responses shared little common ground.
On The One Hand: Peter Morley, a former research manager for NBC and CNBC and a patient advocate focused on federal health care policy, believed abortion and women’s reproductive rights will be a galvanizing issue among the core MSNBC and CNN audiences.
“As you probably remember, in 2018 health care was the number one issue that flipped the House back to blue,” Morley said. “This is definitely something that will re-engage people. I've seen a lot of shock from this news — I think a lot of people became complacent.”
Morley predicted the Roe v. Wade story will be played by MSNBC and CNN until a final Supreme Court decision is announced, and then afterward if the 1973 decision is reversed.
“MSNBC and CNN will push it out — I would imagine that would probably help increase their viewership,” he said. “But the best thing is that it really engages people with health care, which I feel has been really lacking. It is the number one issue in every campaign, but it just seems that it's not the focus of what people are talking about.”
But On The Other Hand: For William E. Yousman, associate professor of communications and media studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and former managing director of the Media Education Foundation, the situation facing MSNBC and CNN is a bit more complex.
“In the wake of Trump's election, both MSNBC and CNN gained viewers and it did seem like people who were concerned about him being elected were seeking out information,” he said. “I think it's possible that this could result in some increased viewership for the channels that are seen as alternative to Fox. But I think that's speculation at this point because of the other thing that has to be considered: since 2016, America has become even more polarized, with people going into their own little tribes and sticking with them through thick or thin.”
Yousman pointed to the coverage of the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill as evidence of a political divide that has atrophied.
“Even in the wake of what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, very, very few Trump supporters or Republicans turned against that party,” he explained. “I'm wondering if that's the case with this as well, because the reality is that the right to an abortion is one of the most polarizing issues that we're confronting, and it has been for a long time where Republicans overwhelmingly are against it and Democrats overwhelmingly support it.
“Republicans overwhelmingly also watch Fox News and Democrats overwhelmingly don't,” he added. “And so, they seek out alternatives. I'm not sure if this would really change that equation in any way, shape, or form.”
Yousman predicted CNN might pick up more viewers because “MSNBC is seen as the much more liberal network, whereas CNN is sort of more moderate.”
Still, he believes while the three major cable networks would see a ratings spike “because this is a startling news story that will attract a lot of attention,” he doesn't believe there will be “any kind of significant demographic shift in terms of who's watching which network.”
And On Yet Another Hand: For Thomas K. Arnold, publisher and editorial director at the trade journal Media Play News, the Roe v. Wade controversy will not move the proverbial needle.
“I think people are tired of the news,” he said. “The news stations have gotten so polarized — people on the left joke about Fox News and call it 'Faux News' and say that Fox is completely biased. People on the right say CNN and MSNBC are progressive, woke proselytizers and they're completely biased. And there's a certain element of truth and what both sides say — all three major cable news services have become increasingly opinionated.
“While there is a delineation between opinion and news, it's a really thin and fading line and too often the stations are presenting news through their own objective or a subjective filter. And that has been steadily turning people off to the news, because people sometimes just want to know what's going on without an interpretation. Look at the quick demise of the CNN+ streaming service — what was that, five weeks?”
Arnold believed social media is supplanting cable news as the go-to source for many people seeking information.
“I think it's almost a natural progression,” he said. “We've become accustomed to hearing newscasters inject their opinions in what is supposed to be straight news, and that's making everybody say, ‘Hey, if they can do it, why can't we?’ I think this Supreme Court news, while certainly a bombshell, is not going to make people tune in more to these news stations. It's going to make them go more to social media.”
Photo: DailyInvention / Flickr Creative Commons
© 2022 Benzinga.com. Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.
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