An extraordinary stretch of news with the coronavirus pandemic and racial reckoning triggered by George Floyd’s death has led cable news to set record numbers of viewers.
Fox News Channel had a record-setting quarter ending in June, according to the Nielsen company — and leading them was a new face: Tucker Carlson.
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Carlson boasted the highest ratings in cable news history over the past quarter, reaching an average total audience of 4.331 million viewers per night. That surpassed fellow Fox News star Sean Hannity’s previous record set in the first quarter of 2020.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity were the only shows to break four million viewers, with Hannity just behind Carlson (4.331 million viewers vs. 4.311 million),” Forbes reported. “Fox News had the five top-rated shows overall, including The Five (3.898 million viewers), Special Report with Bret Baier (3.658 million viewers) and The Ingraham Angle (3.622 million viewers).”
It wasn’t just Fox News seeing record numbers. Behind them, both CNN and MSNBC set all-time viewer numbers for the quarter.
At CNN, the news is welcome at a network that has been relentlessly attacked for four years by President Donald Trump and his allies, who often mocked CNN as “failing.”
CNN’s weekday prime-time audience of 1.95 million was up 120% over the same period last year, Nielsen said. Fox News, which has led in the ratings for nearly two decades, had an average of 4.07 million viewers, a 43% increase, while MSNBC’s count of 2.47 million was up 13% from 2019.
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They are routinely the three most-watched networks on all of cable TV. For the total day, CNN’s viewership was up 119% over 2019, Fox jumped by 48% and MSNBC by 34%.
“We are a news organization that is built for this kind of time,” Zucker said. “The others in this space are political talk channels, and so even when they’re talking about these stories, they’re talking about the politics of the stories. We’re talking about the news of the stories.”
That comment rankled MSNBC President Phil Griffin, who said his network brings an unmatched level of smart, in-depth analysis.
“Our reporters are at the heart of the story, putting themselves in harm’s way every day,” Griffin said. “They’re doing a hell of a lot more than ‘political talk.’”
When politics is the dominant story, that plays more to the strength of Fox and MSNBC, said news consultant Andrew Heyward, a former CBC News president. CNN, meanwhile, can tap a wider network of news affiliates in the United States and has a much larger reporting staff overseas, and that has been invaluable for the pandemic and racial stories, he said.
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A survey this past winter by the Pew Research Center pointed to some potential problems for CNN, particularly with the greater emphasis on opinion in prime time. A Pew survey in 2014 found that 33% of Republicans said they didn’t trust CNN, a number that leaped to 58% in questioning last November.
CNN president Jeff Zucker said that CNN’s own research indicated that increased level of mistrust was the result of Trump’s attacks, and dismissed any perception of bias among the general viewing population.
“There are no red flags,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article