Cable news ratings live and die by the people they put in the anchor chairs.
Which means CNN should thank its lucky stars Anderson Cooper is on their team, according to a new exclusive Variety Intelligence Platform poll fielded in early October by Maru Group, with 1,515 respondents gauging the appeal of cable news’ primetime talent.
Cooper dominated the competitive set — many of whom helm shows that do far better in the ratings than his eponymous program — scoring 20 percentage points higher than second-place finisher Rachel Maddow, who has already scaled back her primetime duties.
Cooper scored not only by an even wider margin among CNN viewers, but he was voted No. 1 among watchers of a network he’s not on, MSNBC — 16 percentage points more than Maddow. To top it off, Cooper was the top-ranked non-Fox News Channel anchor among Fox News fans, behind five of the network’s other stars, led by Tucker Carlson.
What may help to explain Cooper’s appeal in contrast to his ratings is the central role he often plays in coverage of major disasters or big political stories. While CNN ratings trail those of Fox News on most nights, the pivotal moments are where the network, and Cooper, shine most.
It’s worth noting that news network audiences are not mutually exclusive. While there is always a rump of loyalists attached to each individual network, many watch multiple. Thus a proportion of those who watch CNN will also watch Fox News and vice versa, which is important to recall when looking at host favorability among regular network viewers.
Newly moved to mornings, host Don Lemon saw close to half of CNN viewers think of him favorably, with another host moving slots, Jake Tapper, also notching a strong affinity.
Former CNN 9 p.m. host Chris Cuomo sees 45% of CNN viewers say they still hold a good opinion of him, but, save for prominent current or former Fox News primetime hosts, he has the strongest level of unfavorable perception (26%).
Not surprising, Fox News talent drew high negative numbers among CNN and MSNBC viewers. (Note: A CNN or MSNBC or Fox News “viewer” is defined by who answered one of those particular networks in the "Self-Reported Cable News Channels Watch Regularly" poll questions.) CNN and MSNBC are far likelier to attract left-leaning viewers who aren’t too keen on Fox News’ conservative anchors.
It's no surprise to see that among Fox News viewers, its hosts lead in appeal. Numbers for Bill O’Reilly, who previously worked at Fox News but now works at The First TV, are worth pointing out, as he is the Fox News equivalent of Chris Cuomo, a host with a very popular show brought down by personal scandal. He remains very popular among Fox News viewers, but one in four stated they had negative favorability for O’Reilly.
What is concerning about the MSNBC poll results is that even beyond CNN’s Cooper topping the field, other network talents, such as Chris Hayes, trail several other CNN stars as well.
It’s important to put into perspective just how big an audience cable news is even reaching. Keep in mind that significantly more respondents who were asked which cable news channels they regularly watch replied that they don’t watch cable news at all.
Still, it’s crucial that these networks understand the popularity of the talent they put on air because cable news — a format responsible for 57% of the top 5,000 most-watched cable shows in 2021 — is one of the last remaining pillars of linear TV that the streaming services haven’t programmed on their own platforms.