Cable News Sees Prime-Time Viewers Drop in 2021, MSNBC Least Impacted with 25 Percent Dip

Despite being the main form of evening programming for Americans in 2020, weekday cable news viewership has dropped in 2021.

Nielsen reports that weekday prime-time viewership has dropped significantly at various cable news networks. CNN's viewership dropped by 38 percent, while the Fox News Channel lost 34 percent of its audience from 2020. MSNBC was the network least affected by this drop with their audience only decreasing by 25 percent.

Experts are not surprised by this drop. On the contrary, they were anticipating it. University of Maryland professor Tom Rosenstiel said that many cable news networks built their recent models on political combat, or pitting one political party or politician against another. This model might no longer be appealing to many audiences, even if it is difficult to pivot your content away from it.

"You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the audience you built," said Rosenstiel.

However, these networks are attempting to adapt to the changing times. Fox News launched the streaming service Fox Nation earlier this year, and CNN is gearing up to launch theirs in early 2022. CNN is also trying to distance itself from Chris Cuomo, who was fired by the network after it was revealed that he helped cover up sexual harassment allegations against his brother Andrew. As for MSNBC, longtime anchor Brian Williams departed the network in early December.

NBC News Debate
Many cable news entities have dropped in viewership for 2021, which some say is expected after the onslaught of news in 2020. Above, stage preparations for the Democratic presidential debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 18, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"It was entirely predictable," said news media analyst Ken Doctor.

The decline was less steep but still significant at broadcast television evening newscasts: 12 percent at ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "CBS Evening News;" 14 percent at NBC's "Nightly News," Nielsen said.

The Trump era saw explosive subscriber growth for some digital news sites like The New York Times and Washington Post, yet readers aren't spending as much time there; Comscore said the number of unique visitors to the Post's site was down 44 percent in November compared to November 2020, and down 34 percent at the Times.

While a December 23 headline on the Los Angeles Times front page—"How Much More Can We Take?"—referred to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news appetite in general.

The media monitoring company NewsWhip looked at 14 million political articles online last year and found they had an average of 924 engagements, or social media interactions. The 13.5 million articles NewsWhip has traced in 2021 had an average of 321 engagements.

Although usage of the Times' digital site is down, the company passed 8 million subscriptions and is on pace to grow further. Doctor said the Times has done an effective job of diversifying beyond politics, most notably with its Wirecutter service of consumer recommendations.

Leaders at the Post have wrestled with how to deal their readers' dependence on political fare, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is looking internationally for growth opportunities, Doctor said, a focus that plays to the strength of its new executive editor, Sally Buzbee.

"People to some degree have focused inward," Rosenstiel said. "They're getting the news that they need but it's not as much news as it was a year ago."

Particularly for the national news outlets, Rosenstiel said 2021 may best be remembered as a transitional year away from the frenzied news pace of the Trump years.

He sees the effect of those years in the intensity with which the media has covered every twist and turn of legislative negotiations over President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" bill. Like most work in Congress, it's slow-moving and filled with incremental developments.

He's concerned that concentration on this story has distracted from other priorities, including focusing on local efforts to restrict voting rights, ultimately a more important story.

Some 100 to 120 local newspapers shut down in 2021, a number that is on pace with the declines of the past two decades, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University.

Yet local news outlets are also expected to have their smallest number of job cuts in 14 years, according to the research firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. That comes after 2020 saw the biggest number of lost newsroom jobs since 2008.

"What we're seeing this year is kind of a watershed moment in the pivot from a print business model that is diminishing to a digital model that is beginning to take shape," said Timothy Franklin, Abernathy's colleague at Northwestern.

He cited the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star-Tribune as two newspapers that are succeeding in the transition.

Local news outlets saw a boost in digital subscriptions as people sought information in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. While interest in pandemic news has waned, Abernathy said she believes the outlets have done well in keeping many of those new subscribers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction 12/27/21, 12:24 p.m. ET: This story's headline has been corrected to reflect that the viewership dipped in the year 2021, not 2020.

The metrics are ugly for many television, digital and print news organizations: after record-setting engagement numbers in 2020, many people are cutting back on news consumption. Exterior images, from left, appear of CNN headquarters on August 26, 2014, in Atlanta, the New York Times building on June 22, 2019, in New York, News Corporation headquarters with Fox News studios on July 31, 2021, in New York and The One Franklin Square Building, home of The Washington Post, on February 8, 2019, in downtown Washington. AP Photo