The historical – and historically long – election season along with the ongoing financial crisis made 2008 a banner year for cable news. While broadcast networks saw little growth (ABC’s Nightline and NBC’s Nightly News were exceptions), cable was up double- and triple-digits in viewer totals.
Network ratings releases were filled with words like “transformational,” “record-breaking,” “dominant” and the ubiquitous “best year ever.” And in truth, all three networks can boast impressive gains in 2008.
In primetime, Fox News was up 41% in total viewers, averaging just over 2 million viewers. In news’ target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, the network averaged 502,000 viewers, a gain of 43%.
Fox News will finish the year as the most-watched cable news network—for the seventh consecutive year. The network is the No. 3 ranked basic-cable network in primetime, behind USA and ESPN. CNN is ranked 10th and MSNBC is ranked 22nd.
CNN posted gains of 72% in primetime for an average of 1.31 million viewers. For the demo, CNN averaged 463,000 viewers for a 91% increase.
MSNBC grew its primetime audience by 84% for an average of 926,000 viewers. In the demo, MSNBC averaged 368,000 viewers, a gain of 83%.
CNN was the most-watched network on Election Night (8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.), out-drawing all three broadcast networks.
“The issue that drove interest in the election has become even more intense,” says Jon Klein, president of CNN/US. “The economy has gotten even worse, and Americans are even more curious about what the [Obama] administration is going to do about this crisis. We’re going to be offering real news, straight down the middle, non-partisan, unfiltered by any talking points. And I suspect that’s going to continue to resonate with the audience.”
In the fourth quarter, MSNBC's Chris Matthews chugged ahead of CNN's Lou Dobbs at 7 p.m. in total viewers (1.26 million to 1.23 million) and in the demo (437,000 to 397,000).
And while Fox News still boasts the majority of the top-ten cable news programs (7) with Bill O’Reilly leading the charge, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 this year snuck past On the Record with Greta van Susteren in the demo (480,000 to 460,000). In total viewers, On the Record still outrates AC360 (1.74 million to 1.33 million).
As the third-place cable news network, MSNBC had the steepest hill to climb. The network’s fresh new star, Rachel Maddow, is in a dead heat at 9 p.m. with CNN’s Larry King in total viewers for the fourth quarter, each recorded 1.729 million. Among the coveted 25-54 demographic, The Rachel Maddow Show is beating Larry King Live 628,000 to 575,000.
But King, who at 75 is the elder statesman of the genre, is having his best year in years, up 74% in total viewers and more than 100% in the demo since Maddow launched in early September. Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, however, is still the No. 1 show at 9 p.m.
For cable news networks this year, even when you’re behind, you’re still coming out ahead.