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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

When it comes to the audience for cable news, four questions stand out:

Is the cable audience still growing?

How dominant is Fox News?

Can CNN still claim, ratings aside, that more people look at it over the course of a month?

Is MSNBC making any headway?

The answers heading into 2006 looked like this:

  • The audience for cable news was still growing, but not by much and not across the board.
  • One channel, Fox News, continued to drive the growth, while its principal rivals, MSNBC and CNN, continued to suffer ratings declines.
  • CNN still leads in the number of different people who watch it over the course of the month, allowing it to maintain its claim to be a rival to Fox News.
  • CNN’s Headline News emerged as a new contender in the cable news landscape. It managed to surpass MSNBC to become the third most watched channel in 2005.

Underlying all these developments is the realization that cable news’s natural growth may be reaching a point of saturation. Most people now have access to all three cable news channels (Fox News, MSNBC and CNN). That makes significant growth of new subscribers unlikely. And as easier broadband access makes the Internet a more attractive medium for audio-visual news, each channel will have to work harder to hold on to current audiences, let alone attract new ones.

Cable Audiences Grew, Gradually

Overall viewership of cable news grew 2.8% in 2005 over 2004. That figure, new in this report, refers to the total number of people watching cable news, i.e., the sum of all viewers watching either daytime news or prime time news — or both — through the year.1

When viewership is divided into the two important segments of the day, prime time and daytime, the numbers reveal more significant growth in the evening, when the channels are oriented to producing “programs” rather than tracking the news of the day.

In prime time ( 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. ), there was a 4% growth in median audience of the three main cable news channels. The number of viewers watching cable news during prime time was 2.7 million, up from 2.6 million in 2004. This builds on the 3% improvement in 2003, but falls short of the 6% growth seen in 2004. And it is a long way off from the dramatic surge in prime time median audiences in 2001 and 2002.

Cable News Prime Time Median Audience
1998 – 2005, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

The overall growth of daytime viewership ( 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. ) was similarly modest. In 2005, daytime median audience grew by three percent, from 1.56 million to 1.60 million viewers. That was down from the 5% growth rate in 2004 (from 1.48 million to 1.56 million).

Cable News Daytime Median Audience
1998 – 2005, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

Only Fox News Is Growing

The overall prime time and daytime numbers, however, are deceiving, since all of the growth in viewership at the three main cable news operations was due to Fox News channel. The other channels actually saw declines in their median audience.

In prime time, Fox News’s median viewership rose by 9%. CNN and MSNBC had losses of 11% and 2% respectively.

Cable News Prime Time Median Audience by Channel
1998 – 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

In daytime, too, Fox News was responsible for most of the growth in cable; its viewership rose by 5%, while CNN recorded a loss of 7%. MSNBC also had good daytime performance, ending the year with a gain of 3%.

Introduced as a rival to CNN in 1996, Fox News barely competed with the cable news giant in its initial years. Between late 2000 and 2003, however, Fox News made dramatic gains to overtake not just MSNBC, but CNN as well. It emerged as the leader in the ratings race in April 2003. Since then, Fox News’s ratings success shows little sign of wearing off (see Previous Reports).

Measuring the Audience

This report calculates cable ratings as median averages. Our research team believes that the median is the fairest way to try to understand the core audience for cable, given the volatility of ratings spikes during unusual news events. The cable channels themselves usually calculate their year-to-year ratings as simple averages, which are disproportionately inflated by ratings driven by major news events and exaggerate the declines in cable audiences when those spikes don’t happen (See 2005 Report for fuller explanation).

If one calculates the cable ratings in 2005 by a simple average, or mean, as the cable channels do, the picture is much flatter, except for CNN. The average prime time audience over all rose less than a percent (0.2%). While CNN saw a gain of one percent, Fox News grew less than that (0.2%) and MSNBC’s viewership fell by 1%.

Cable News Prime Time Audience
Average Audience, 1998 – 2005, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

In daytime, using the mean, the growth was more than that of the median audience figure and a stark turnaround from 2004. Daytime viewership grew seven percent, compared with a 21% drop in 2004. According to Nielsen Media Research, the average daytime audience for 2005 grew from 1.6 million to 1.7 million.

What’s more, using the mean average, this calculation indicates that all three channels experienced growth in daytime viewers, though Fox News still gained the most. It had an increase of 9% in viewership, followed by CNN (7%) and MSNBC (3%) respectively.

Cable News Daytime Average Audience
1998 – 2005, by Channel
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

This is a clear example of how a major news event — Katrina in this case — can alter the figures considerably. Before Katrina (looking at cable ratings from January through August), cable viewership by average measurement showed no growth in daytime audience and only moderate growth during prime time. Just adding the month of September, when Katrina occurred, sent daytime average growth soaring. Prime time also grew, though not to the same extent. By the end of the year, the audience numbers had again leveled out. But the effect of this one big story was enough to improve numbers for the year.2

Indeed, if one uses mean, the measure that cable channels use with advertisers, the picture for CNN, whose audience fluctuates more with breaking news events, changes considerably. It changes from losing in both time periods to gaining at the same rate as Fox News — a phenomenon that in fact occurred only in one month of the year.

How do the two measures, mean versus median, fit together? One way to consider them is to look at the two over time — how much the figures for each changed year-to-year. Both prime time median audience and average audience grew rapidly in 2000 and 2001, but their paths diverged in 2002 and have remained inconsistent with each other since. The two daytime audience figures have been even more disparate over time.

Cable News Prime Time Audience Growth
Annual Growth Rate, 1999 – 2005, Channels Combined
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license
Growth in comparison with previous year

The last three years have been peppered with momentary big news events such as the start of the war in Iraq , Saddam Hussein’s capture, and Hurricane Katrina, illustrating the statistical phenomenon that simple averages are skewed by a few massive spikes . It also highlights the tendency of cable audiences to tune in heavily during big breaking-news moments.

Fox Leads the Ratings Pack

By either measurement, one thing is clear: Fox News channel was the ratings leader in 2005. Wherever one looks, more than half the cable news audience was watching Fox News.

In the evenings, or prime time, an average of 1.59 million people watched Fox News in 2005, up from 1.47 million in 2004. That is more than double the 725,000 watching CNN, whose median prime time viewership dropped by 90,000, from 815,000 in 2004. MSNBC had a median prime time audience in 2005 of 335,000 viewers, slightly less than the 341,000 viewers a year earlier.

During the day, 901,500 people watched Fox News at any given moment. The median audience of CNN was less than half that number, at 448,500. Roughly half that number again watched MSNBC— 229,500 (an increase for the channel from 224,000 a year earlier).

Where did Fox News’s growth come from? The evidence suggests two places.

First, Fox News has eaten into its competition’s audience. Over the past four years, its share has been growing at a faster rate than the cable audience has, indicating that it is taking viewers away from the other channels.

Yet Fox’s increases are greater than the losses suffered by CNN and MSNBC. So some of its growth also came from new viewers, people who were not watching cable news at all. That growth appears to derive mostly from new distribution as Fox News was added to cable systems that previously did not have access to the channel, rather than from people who chose to stop watching non-news alternatives.3

Ratings vs. Cume: CNN Still ‘Unique’

Despite the ratings data, CNN has always made the argument that it is more popular over all than Fox News because more people, or unique viewers, watch it. This remained true in 2005 as well, though the gap was narrowing.

This number, called “cumulative audience” or “Cume,” is different from the ratings numbers discussed above. Ratings measure how many people in total watched a channel at any given moment. Cume refers to how many different people watch the channel over time — equivalent to the online industry’s “unique visitors.” Viewers are counted as part of a TV channel’s Cume measurement if they tune in for six minutes or longer (they are averaged over the course of a month).

CNN argues that Cume figures are better indicators of overall popularity for cable news.

Cable News Cumulative Audience
Number of Unique Viewers, October 2003 to December 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN

This problem of ratings vs. Cume was not an issue in the old days of broadcast television. In the 1960s and 1970s, most households watching TV at the news hours were watching one of the three networks, rather than myriad other channels as well. Thus, ratings and share data told us what most Americans were watching.

The argument is that in a niche landscape of hundreds of channels, when the majority of viewers are elsewhere, Cume is a measurement of the popularity of a news channel’s overall brand instead of its specific programs.

Even on this measurement, 2005 gave CNN reason to be concerned. While it continued to attract more unique viewers than Fox News, the gap has narrowed slightly.

In 2005, the pattern of cumulative audience showed that on an average, CNN got about 7 million more unique viewers a month than Fox News. Comparing this to 2004, CNN’s lead over Fox News has been cut in half.4

A pair of stories illustrates CNN’s unique appeal when major international news breaks. The 2005 gap between the two was very high in January after the Tsunami hit Asia . In that month, 76.8 million different people watched CNN, 12 million more than Fox News. The gap narrowed substantially in February (a difference of a million viewers) and then peaked again in April at the time of the Pope’s death and succession (a difference of nine million viewers).5

In other words, Fox has a more loyal audience that watches for longer periods of time — what advertisers want. Yet CNN commands a larger pool of casual viewers who tune in for key news moments.

The best example of that was Hurricane Katrina. During September, when people tuned in to get news of the disaster, decidedly more people chose to get it from CNN – 100 million unique viewers, the highest viewership among all the cable channels.6

Not only that, CNN’s prime time audience more than doubled in that month (an increase of 168%) and its daytime audience more than tripled (210%) from what it was in August. Fox News’s audience, on the other hand, saw only 35% growth in prime time from its August figure, and 106% growth in daytime. During September, indeed, CNN’s ratings – not just cumulative audience – actually exceeded those for Fox News.7

Prime Time Audience Growth in September 2005
Viewers in Thousands

Month CNN MSNBC Fox News
August 2005
September 2005

Daytime Audience Growth in September 2005
Viewers in Thousands

Month CNN MSNBC Fox News
August 2005
September 2005

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Beyond Katrina, survey results also reinforce the idea that over time more unique viewers still turn to CNN, though the gap has narrowed considerably. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in June 2005 found that 24% of Americans said they get “most of their news about national and international issues” from CNN, compared with 22% from Fox (and 7% from MSNBC).

Fox News’s overall ratings success suggests that it has a deep appeal to its core audience. For CNN, the numbers suggest that it still has brand appeal, though smaller than it once had. But CNN continues to have the same problem it has had for more than a decade. People tend to view it as a utilitarian channel, something to get headlines from, rather than something that offers them distinct programs they want to watch regularly. There also may be a caution here for CNN. Might the extra people who tune in during major events also turn elsewhere if they think they can get the information faster or better from another source, especially if the Internet grows as a rival medium?

CNN Headline News

If CNN’s main channel headed into 2006 concerned over its standing, its sister channel, CNN Headline News, had reason to cheer.

In 2005, Headline News overtook MSNBC in ratings and has become, for all intents and purposes, the third channel out of four rather than an afterthought. In February 2005, it replaced its typical headlines-only “wheel” format with prime time programs such as “Showbiz Tonight,” an entertainment show; Nancy Grace’s justice-themed interview/debate show, and “Prime News Tonight,” an hour-long program that looks at the day’s headlines at 9 p.m. on weeknights. By the end of that month, Headline News had passed MSNBC in ratings for both prime time and daytime viewership. It kept up the pace throughout the year, with its strongest rated shows being Nancy Grace and “Prime News Tonight.”8

Headline News also out-performed MSNBC in cumulative audience. According to data received from CNN, it averaged 50.1 million unique viewers per month versus MSNBC’s 46.2 million in 2005.9

Cable News Cumulative Audience, 2005
Number of Unique Viewers, including CNN Headline News
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN
* CNN Headline News

If the trend continues, the relationship between Headline News and CNN will be one to watch. Early statements from corporate executives suggest the channel is trying to create its own distinct identity, different from CNN and competing with Fox News. Indeed, Ken Jautz, President of CNN Headline News, was quoted as saying that “Headline News wants to look and feel very different from CNN” and that “there are no plans to use Headline News to incubate programs for CNN.”10

The Issue of Cable Saturation

In a May 2005 interview with USA Today, the media analyst Tom Wolzien suggested that the cable networks were “cannibalizing“ from each other rather than winning viewers from broadcast.11 He predicted that for cable in general, barring better programming and more investment, the size of the audience would peak in 2009. While it is too early to see if Wolzien’s predictions are true, the case for a diminishing growth in new audience appears valid. Even Fox News’s ability to attract new viewers may diminish as cable systems reach their distribution limits.

According to Nielsen Media Research-NTI, which releases this trend for each January, the total number of cable households in the U.S. as a percentage of all TV-owning households has barely increased in the last five years. The percentage has fluctuated between 67.5% and 69.8% since 2001, barely a 2% difference.12

Cable Households in the U.S.
Wired Cable Households in Thousands, January of each year

Year Cable Households Percentage of TV Owning Households

Source: Nielsen Media Research-NTI, accessed from


CNN Headline News’s success in 2005 is worth considering. It represents the first audience gains CNN has enjoyed after several years of decline. It raises a series of related questions.

Will the network follow through on its vision of two distinct personalities? If so, how different will they be? How close to the edge do CNN managers feel they can go with a particular show in prime time to get ratings? Would they go as far toward political opinion as Bill O’Reilly? Would they go as far toward tabloid as Nancy Grace?

Critics on the left and many in the mainstream dismiss or at least criticize Fox News as being one-sided. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution put it, “Detractors boil down Fox’s rise to a perceived pandering to a disaffected segment of society — read: white middle class — weary of U.S.-bashing here and abroad. They are eager to pin the scarlet letter C, for conservative, on the lapels of on-air personalities, beneath the tiny American flags that a few wear.”13

Our content analysis in past years suggested that Fox News’s allure was much more complicated than that. First, the style of its anchors and correspondents is more informal than those of other newscasts. Their language is more conversational. Fox News also has a faster pace and uses sound and graphics differently. Those are all stylistic differences that do not have to do with political ideology.

Other differences in style are more political. Fox’s on-air staff people refer to themselves as clearly American. U.S. troops are often “our troops,” and America is “we.” That is certainly not a traditional style for news reporting, and it is beyond debate that Fox News is an American channel. Correspondents and anchors on Fox News are also more prone, than those elsewhere, to offer opinions, but often on non-controversial issues. For instance, we found in our content analysis last year that anchors might say a higher percentage of Iraqi-led soldiers in military actions is “a good thing”.14 That, indeed, is the stated policy of the U.S. and is not an issue in dispute in American policy circles.

CNN, on the other hand, has tried to position itself as an international network, and has always avoided the kind of language Fox News uses. Its success in attaining a non-American image, though, is more questionable. There is little doubt, for instance, that the BBC is a British broadcast. Similarly, foreign journalists say that people think of CNN as clearly American.

Those are not the only differences between Fox News and its rivals. We found in our content analysis last year, for instance, that Fox was more likely to air stories that were positive in tone about the Iraq war than either MSNBC or CNN.15

Whatever the mix, however, Fox’s appeal is most likely attributable to a number of factors, and a key one is that it has had more success in developing distinct programs built around distinct anchors. Here, CNN and MSNBC are trying to play catch-up. The topic agenda among the three cable news channels is roughly identical.16


1. Adding up viewers of all three networks in 2004 for both prime time and daytime gave us 5.35 million viewers. The same calculation in 2005 resulted in 5.50 million viewers (Nielsen Media Research data for January to December 2004 and January to December 2005).

2. Annual figures until August 2005 showed a .3% decline in daytime audience and 6% growth in prime time. In September, however, daytime audiences shot up by 12%, while prime time rose by 8%. By December 2005, the daytime average leveled out to 7%, while prime time fell to .2%. Thus, Katrina led to a sharp increase in averages for September, and when the story died down, the averages dipped back down. The dip was especially steep for prime time averages. (Source: Nielsen Media Research)

3. Between 2000 and 2004, Fox News extended its reach on cable systems by almost 40 million subscribers. CNN, which had reached its distribution potential (already carried on most cable systems), gained only 10 million more potential subscribers over those four years.

4. In 2004, CNN averaged 15 million more unique viewers per month than Fox News. Cume is based on mean average, not median, but the fact that CNN leads each month does suggest that its advantage here is not based just on big stories. (Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN)

5. CNN posted steep viewer losses during the month of February 2005, slipping 21% in prime time and 16% in daytime. It even lost in the key 25-54 demographic to third-place MSNBC during the speech. That, however, could be accounted for by the fact that the audience watching the State of the Union address is heavily Republican and inclined toward Fox News. The pattern was repeated during the State of the Union Address in 2006 — Fox News had the highest viewership among all the cable channels. See Michael Learmonth, “CNN Flops in February as Fox News Surges,” Daily Variety, March 2, 2005. Also see Michael Learmonth, “Fox Nets Record Aud for Prexy Speech: State of the Union address draws in 6.46 million viewers,” Daily Variety, February 1, 2006.

6. Fox News recorded 87 million unique visitors that month while MSNBC had 69 million. (Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN)

7. Survey data about Katrina reinforce the Cume data. A Pew poll in September found that 31% of Americans said they were “getting most” of their “news about the disaster” from CNN, while 22% cited Fox, 9% MSNBC. CNN, then, alone commanded nearly the same percentage as all the three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, combined (network news got 34% while local news got 19%). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Two in three critical of Bush’s relief efforts,” Pew Research Center , September 8, 2005 . (Respondents could cite more than one news source) Online at:

8. Toni Fitzgerald, “CNN Headline News topples MSNBC,” Media Life Magazine, March 31, 2005.

9. This report separates the two CNN channels in audience analysis because Nielsen Media Research, which aggregates data on audience figures, provides figures for each channel individually.

10. Toni Fitzgerald, “CNN Headline News topples MSNBC,” Media Life Magazine, March 31, 2005.

11. “Desperate No More? Networks See a Rebound in Viewers,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2005 . Wolzien has since left the investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Company Inc., to semi-retire and start a consulting practice, Wolzien LLC. John Eggerton, “Wolzien Exiting Sanford Bernstein”, Broadcasting & Cable, July 15, 2005 .

12. “Cable and VCR Households,” TV Basics: Online Brochure, Media Trends Track, Research Central, Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) Web site.

13. Mike Tierney, “Fox now the big dog in cable news — and growing,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 9, 2005 .

14. See 2005 Annual Report: Cable TV, Content Analysis (‘Differences among cable channels’).

15. Ibid.

16. See 2004 and 2005 Annual Reports.