Fading Ratings: How 24-Hour News Swallowed Other Cable Genres’ Market Share

Fading Ratings
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

The following is excerpted from Variety Intelligence Platform‘s report “Fading Ratings,” which will be available exclusively to subscribers on Jan. 4, 2022. The report will provide an extensive analysis of changes in broadcast and cable TV for the 18-49 demo ratings and total audience. Read part one of our excerpts, about how far broadcast TV viewership has fallen since 2015. Subscribe to VIP+.


Over the past six years, the cable TV landscape has experienced a contraction in what is being watched by subscribers.

Political news and opinion programming across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC accounted for 83% of the most watched 5,000 cable TV shows of 2021 (Jan. 1-Nov. 30) among total viewers, according to a VIP+ analysis of live and same-day measurement.

It’s a stunning leap from 2016, when political news shows “only” accounted for 57% of the top 5,000 shows that year. That, of course, was an election year featuring the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, who propelled robust audience growth in the ensuing years.

The domination of cable news demonstrates how far cable viewing has moved from a more balanced diet of programming options across a wide variety of genres ranging from sports to scripted dramas and comedies. The 83% figure is also representative of how news-loving older viewers are heavily concentrated in aggregate TV watching.

Stripping away older viewers and running the same analysis among the top 5,000 ranked shows among 18-49s tells a different story.

Cable news fare is still the most popular genre in 2021 to date, almost trebling from 2016’s level in raw numbers, accounting for 36% of the top 5,000 (12% in 2016). But several genres that barely register among total viewers are better represented among 18-49 viewers. Reality shows have fallen, from 42% of share to 32%, but they still account for a considerable number of most-watched shows among 18-49s.

Sports saw small increases in its share among 18-49s, both for live events (up from 14%, to 20%) and studio or talk shows (going from 12% in 2016 to 15% in 2021). Overall, sports content accounts for 30% of the most watched shows, just behind cable news, with Sportscenter alone amounting to 5% of shows. Much as was seen in VIP+’s analysis of broadcast TV, event programming is one of the pillars for cable TV.

One genre that has fallen heavily among both demos is drama. There were 407 dramas in the top 5,000 shows of 2016 for 18-49s, a number that fell 64% in 2021. Among total viewers, just 43 dramas made it into the most watched of 2021, down 85%. The fall of dramas is due to the erosion of the pay-TV subscriber base and the rise of streaming services as the primary destination for scripted programming.

The success of Paramount Network’s drama “Yellowstone” seemingly flies in the face of the overall drama decline, but hits of that size are becoming increasingly scarce. The future of cable originals will be news and opinion, sports and reality.

Some key content will remain on cable for in order to extend the life of the revenue streams from advertising and affiliate fees for as long as possible. But as will be seen in VIP+’s upcoming analysis of peak-TV trends for 2021, other genres — drama, comedy, even anime — have already begun to migrate to streaming platforms as viewing patterns change. The result is that the cable package of 2030 will be radically different than what you see today.


The "Fading Ratings" report, which will include analysis of the top 1,000 most watched shows, key genre breakdowns and distribution by networks, will be available only to VIP+ subscribers.

Read the full special report