CNN Bottomed Out in 2021—Will Viewers Come Back?

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

At the beginning of 2021, CNN was on top of the cable news world.

The network, which revolutionized round-the-clock news coverage when it launched more than four decades ago, had finally retaken the ratings crown from Fox News and pushed its conservative rival to third place for the first time since 2000.

Less than a year later, CNN’s viewership has shrunk—the channel is buried in third place, behind Fox and MSNBC after a series of controversies and scandals that ostensibly struck a blow to the news network’s credibility.

In fact, just this past week, the network averaged a paltry 585,000 total viewers in primetime, placing CNN all the way back in 17th place among all basic cable. Worse yet, the channel’s 120,000 viewers in the key primetime demographic were only good enough for 31st place among cable stations.

In other words, the future isn’t all that bright for CNN heading into 2022—and it’s not clear if there’s anything it can do to pull itself from the morass.

2020 was perhaps the biggest year ever for the cable news business. The world was suddenly hit with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic at the same time that a dramatic presidential election unfolded. The seemingly unending deluge of news was then capped off by President Donald Trump refusing to accept his decisive election loss, sparking the climactic Jan. 6 conclusion with Trump inciting an insurrection in a desperate bid to stay in office.

While 2020 as a whole was the best year on record for CNN, it was the final quarter of that year and the first month of 2021 where the channel saw truly historic viewership.

Chris Wallace Ditches Fox News for CNN

For the final year of the Trump presidency, CNN brought in an average of 1.79 million total viewers in primetime (Monday-Sunday) and a primetime audience of 522,000 in the key advertising demographic of viewers ages 25-54. The network’s 2020 total day ratings sat at 1.14 million viewers overall and 313,000 in the 25-54 demo.

CNN’s 2020 growth was explosive, especially compared to its two main rivals. For example, the network’s total day audience in the key demo grew by 90 percent, compared to MSNBC’s 33 percent and Fox News’ 46 percent bump. In primetime, CNN’s key demographic viewership rose by a whopping 102 percent, and its total viewership in those 8 to 11 p.m. hours jumped 83 percent.

In the fourth quarter of 2020 alone, CNN pulled in an average total day viewership of 1.48 million and 412,000 in the 25-54 demo. In primetime, the numbers soared to an average overall audience of 2.37 million viewers and 710,000 in the key advertising demographic. Compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, CNN experienced triple-digit growth across all the relevant metrics, including a jump of 176 percent in the primetime demo.

And that was all before the network’s biggest month in recent memory.

January 2021, of course, featured the one-two punch of the Capitol riot and then Joe Biden’s inauguration, delivering a compelling crescendo to the bonkers five-year-long Trump news cycle. While Fox News fell behind CNN and MSNBC for the first time in more than two decades, as disgruntled Trump diehards ditched the network for accurately calling the election results for Biden, CNN posted historic ratings.

For that wild month, CNN averaged a total daily viewership just shy of 2 million, with more than half a million total daytime viewership in the key demo. In primetime, the network’s average audience for the month swelled to 2.7 million viewers, with 795,000 in the 25-54 demographic. Once again, compared to the previous year, CNN was up triple-digits in all of its key metrics. The growth was astonishing.

And then the status quo came roaring back.

Within months, Fox News quickly regained its spot atop the cable news heap. And while the first three months of 2021 viewership looked good on paper for CNN (the network led all of basic cable in the multiple key metrics), the writing was on the wall. While viewership was significantly up compared to 2020’s first quarter, marking double-digit growth across the board, the ratings had begun to sink relative to the previous three months.

By the second quarter, it was clear viewers had grown disinterested and tuned cable news out. CNN was hit the hardest. While all networks suffered in the ratings, CNN dealt with a seismic shift: The network shed 53 percent of its primetime viewership from the previous quarter and 49 percent year-over-year.

Eventually, CNN fell out of the top five for all basic cable networks in primetime. In Q3 2021, its 822,000 average nightly viewership was only good for eighth place and showed an additional 10 percent loss from the previous quarter. Meanwhile, Fox News grew 9 percent in both total primetime and demo viewership from its second quarter.

CNN’s quarterly demo ratings sank to its smallest since 2014. The network experienced significant losses across the board, but most severely with viewers ages 55 and under.

And then CNN’s bottom fell out in the fall.

October saw the network only pull in an average daily audience of 487,000 and a paltry 661,000 in primetime. The demographic audiences only barely exceeded 100,000 and CNN again saw month-to-month regression in its viewership. The numbers weren’t much better in November, though there was slight demographic growth compared to October—a minor consolation.

And despite starting the year as the most-watched cable news network, CNN finished 2021 with only one program in the top-25 of cable news options: the network’s 9 p.m. ET slot that had, until recently, been anchored by Chris Cuomo.

And even then, for the year, that hour averaged 1.3 million total viewers, finishing behind 13 Fox News shows and 11 MSNBC programs.

Fox News Really Wants You to Think Its Ratings Aren’t Down

Throughout the year, media analysts suggested a relatively quiet Biden administration—compared with the nonstop chaos of the Trump era—was to blame for precipitous declines in cable news viewership. CNN is generally at its peak when there are major breaking-news events and casual viewers tune in to the network perhaps most synonymous with the genre.

But while calmer news cycles, a lack of Trump, and shifting programming schedules all likely explain why viewers turned off CNN in 2021, some media watchers suggested the network’s series of credibility-denting scandals may have played a role too.

Once the network’s primetime centerpiece, Cuomo was fired by CNN earlier this month after generating months of controversy for having privately advised his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, amid a career-ending sexual misconduct scandal. The situation became untenable for CNN after it was revealed that the younger Cuomo was using his media sources to dig up dirt on his brother’s accusers.

And Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst, was pulled off the air in late 2020 after exposing himself on a Zoom call with colleagues. Despite the New Yorker firing him after 27 years on its staff, CNN boss Jeff Zucker opted to give Toobin a second chance after an aggressive lobbying campaign from friends—a move that left some network insiders appalled. Toobin has been back on the air since June.

Parker Molloy, a former editor-at-large at liberal watchdog Media Matters who now runs her own media and politics newsletter, suggested that both incidents chipped away at CNN‘s credibility and, perhaps ultimately, a part of its viewership.

“These are decisions I don't understand and don't really make sense as a news network. Credibility really should be the most important thing that news channels put out there that they stand behind,” she told The Daily Beast. “And when you have one of your primetime hosts constantly stepping on rakes, like Cuomo was, and was getting away with it every time, it was like—there were a number of ethical mishaps.”

Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones seemed to disagree, however, telling The Daily Beast that the incidents ultimately didn’t do much to damage CNN‘s reputation with viewers outside the media bubble.

“I mean, the Cuomo thing, he crossed ethical lines,” Jones said. “But I think for a lot of people—non-journalists—I’m not sure how big they thought that line was or how bad that line was.”

And there seems to be no consensus on how CNN can recapture its viewership, though analysts point to the upcoming 2022 midterm election cycle as providing the network with another series of major news events. Additionally, CNN has made a concerted effort to move away from cable viewership being its primary measure of success: the network has invested heavily in its soon-to-be-unveiled digital subscription service, titled CNN+, which has already hired high-profile talent like Chris Wallace from its cable rivals.

But media observers like Molloy also expressed concern that one way CNN could try to claw back in the ratings is to make subtle appeals to conservative viewers who currently view the network as too liberal in its politics.

“They could let Trump host a show itself on CNN and they would insist that CNN was a ‘left-wing network,’” Molloy quipped.

Still, recent remarks made by media mogul John Malone have registered to some as suggestive of a potential rightward shift. Malone is the chairman of Liberty Media, which owns SiriusXM, and a leading shareholder of Discovery Inc., which earlier this year announced a mega-merger with CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia.

“Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have news news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions,” Malone said in a CNBC interview about the merger last month. “And I think they’ve been relatively successful with a service like Bret Baier, and Brit Hume before him, that try to distinguish news from opinion.”

He continued, raising eyebrows with an unsubtle suggestion that CNN does not currently practice “real journalism” when compared to the overtly conservative Fox News: “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing… I do believe good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-TimeWarner’s going to represent.”

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