Executive sturm und drang aside, Fox News is still head and shoulders ahead of its competition as far as coverage of the Republican National Convention is concerned. But CNN is shrinking the gap considerably.
From 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the third night of the RNC, during which former Republican candidate for president Ted Cruz opted not to endorse his party’s nominee, Fox News averaged 5.81 million total viewers to CNN’s 3.03 million. For Fox News, that’s actually a slight decrease from the same night of 2012’s RNC. For CNN, though, that’s more than double their total viewer average (1.12 million) from 2012.
In the 25-54 demographic — the one that matters to cable news advertisers — the increase is even more massive at CNN: 342,000 to 894,000. Fox News still won, with 1.31 million 25-54 viewers, but it, too, was down in that demo from 2012 (1.42 million).
MSNBC, perhaps unsurprisingly, lags behind its cable and broadcast counterparts, though it too, is up from 2012, and by a large margin. In 2012, the third night of its coverage brought in 1.3 million viewers — more than CNN, it should be pointed out — with 367,000 of those viewers falling into the 25-54 demo. Wednesday night, it pulled in 1.65 million total and 425,000 demo viewers, an increase of 37% and 38%, respectively.
The broadcast networks didn’t start covering the convention until 10 p.m., and speeches that ran long pushed coverage to about 11:15 p.m., likely resulting in some tune-out. Ratings for the cable networks were even higher during that portion of the evening: Fox News averaged 7.34 million, CNN 3.5 million and MSNBC 1.98 million. Fox News beat all three broadcasters, while CNN finished ahead of ABC and CBS.
All told, including CBS, NBC and ABC (just around 10 million), total viewership weighed in at 23.37 million souls, per Nielsen. That’s up slightly from 2012, which saw 21.94 million tune in for VP pick Paul Ryan’s grand debut. Both pale in comparison to 2008’s third night, however, when 37.24 million people watched the introduction of then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate.
Unlike most other aspects of the current election, these ratings fluctuations don’t defy explanation. More philosophical minds might point to a sort of rubberneck effect, as people anticipated Cruz’s endorsement of Trump, which never materialized, resulting in resounding jeers.
The jump for CNN is stark, however. There are a few factors that could be at play: One is the person in charge of the network now — CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker came in just after the 2012 election and immediately put in place a more ratings-sensitive programming strategy to try and reverse years of declines.
Another is that, contrary to the prevailing narrative of a corrosive schism in the collective American psyche that has led the country to a more partisan bent, perhaps more of the public now wants to watch what it might perceive as middle-of-the-road coverage.
Or it could just be that more people watching TV in general means more people watching something like the convention, and the fact that CNN gained the bigger share is just a coincidence.