When “Alex Wagner Tonight” begins its run Aug. 16 at MSNBC, the veteran journalist has big shoes to fill. Rachel Maddow’s decision to vacate the anchor chair at 9 p.m. from Tuesday through Friday creates a succession dilemma in trying to replace one of primetime’s biggest draws in the news business.
But MSNBC is hardly alone in its quest to fix a time slot that is crucial for drawing an audience sizable enough to cement a network’s brand identity and generate advertising revenue. Both of its rivals at CNN and Fox News Channel have ratings challenges of their own in that hour, a worrisome trend that doesn’t bode well for the trio of 24-hour news networks.
While all three networks are seeing a ratings surge this week thanks to constant coverage of the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, a VIP+ ratings analysis of the prior three months (May-July) indicates a more concerning trend playing out longer term.
Wagner has her work cut out for her at 9 p.m. Though MSNBC has a comfortable lead over third-place CNN in the hour, the time slot’s ratings decline has been in double digits over the past three months, steeper than even CNN's in May and July. That’s in part because Maddow shifted to a once-per-week schedule that began in May.
CNN is doing almost as badly in the 9 p.m. slot. Losing star talent is also to blame here, as the firing of Chris Cuomo last December has left the network without a permanent replacement ever since. These losses may deepen in the coming months because Axios recently reported that the network may continue to rely on a rotation of hosts and may not ever settle on any one personality to call that hour their own.
What may be more worrisome for CNN is that the network is in the early stages of a pivot away from the Democrat-friendly stance taken while under the direction of Jeff Zucker to a more middle-of-the-road balancing act intended to attract viewers on both sides of the aisle under new CNN chief Chris Licht, who started in May. He has reportedly professed to not be focused on the ratings at this point. But how much of a grace period he will be given by parent company Warner Bros. Discovery will be interesting to watch as that company comes under increasing pressure to turn around its fortunes.
What hasn’t changed, however, is that Fox News is as dominant as ever, towering over CNN and MSNBC in the ratings. While its left-leaning counterparts have clearly lost considerable momentum in the post-Trump era, when the channel's hosts positioned themselves as foils to the president, Fox News successfully stayed the course in primetime with a conservative tilt that such upstart imitators as OAN and Newsmax have copied without much success.
But there are indications at 9 p.m. that mainstay “Hannity” is showing signs of age as the longest-running cable news host in primetime. While it’s no surprise that Sean Hannity and the rest of the Fox News lineup has fallen far from their peak audience drawing power in 2020, when his close friend Trump was still in office, his numbers in recent months have softened even as Fox News has managed to grow in the 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours.
“Hannity” has been approximately flat in June and July versus the same months in 2021, while “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “The Ingraham Angle” have mustered slight single-digit increases. What may be even more concerning is that “Hannity” and "Ingraham" got beat in the same months by FNC’s new 7 p.m. show “Jesse Watters Primetime,” featuring one of the stars of the network’s highest-rated property, morning show “The Five.”
While each network is facing its own individual challenges here, what they may all be feeling is increasing audience fatigue that has been a factor since Trump exited the White House. The combination of the Jan. 6 hearings, the war in Ukraine and plenty of other political controversies could be wearing out the viewing public. That will be put to the test as we approach November’s midterm elections and draw ever closer to a 2024 presidential race that could prove every bit as radioactive as the last one, if not more so.