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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism


Audiences turned to cable news channels in droves during 2008.

The three major news networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — benefited from the drama and excitement of an election cycle that wound up engaging voters for nearly 21 months. By the time the race was over, the cable channels had converted nearly two-thirds the prime-time programming studied by PEJ to the campaign and drew record audience numbers. By one measure, average prime-time viewership, total audience jumped by more than half.

Which channel gained the most? The answer to this question is a bit more complicated than is often reported in the media.

The most common indicator of audience, ratings, tells us how many people are watching a certain channel in a given moment. By this measure, Fox News was the clear winner in 2008, followed at a distance by CNN and MSNBC.

Audiences approach cable news differently than they do traditional network television, however. Viewers often tune in less for particular cable programs than to see what is happening at random moments throughout the day or when big events are happening.

Cumulative audience measurement (cume) is designed to account for this type of news consumption habit, tracking how many different people tune in to a cable news channel, even for just a few minutes per month. In 2008, CNN was the clear leader in cume audience, and MSNBC caught up to Fox News by the end of the year.

And how did cable compare to other news on television? The three traditional network half-hour evening newscasts as a group continued to attract bigger audiences in 2008, claiming twice as many viewers as the average prime-time cable audience. But some cable channels outdrew the networks for the first time during certain key events, including the political conventions. And according to survey data, 10% more people said they regularly turned to cable news rather than network for national and international news, compared to 1% more who said they preferred cable in 2002.

Even before the presidential campaign was over, analysts began to wonder whether the audience gains in cable news could be sustained once the votes were cast. The data for the first few months following the election suggest that all of the cable channels lost ground, though to varying degrees. By February 2009, audience levels for the three channels combined were slightly above where they were one year before.

A key question for the rest of 2009 will be how Fox News, CNN and MSNBC adapt to these declining audience patterns.

Cable News Prime-Time Viewership

February 2007 – 2009
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s average prime-time audience

Cable Audiences: Growing Again

Cable audience growth in 2008 sharply eclipsed the increase in 2007 in both prime time and daytime.

Of the two, prime time saw the most growth. The evening programming, dominated by talk show hosts offering commentary on the news and long-form programs that go into one or two subjects at length, added audiences at twice the rate of daytime on the three major cable news channels. The same was true for the smaller HLN, formerly known as CNN Headline News.1

Ratings growth can be measured using one of two calculations – the mean (the simple average) or the median (the number in the middle of a series of figures).

This report offers the numbers in both forms.

The cable channels prefer to calculate their year-to-year ratings by converting the Nielsen Media Research ratings data into annual “averages” using the mean. Academic advisers to the Project are unanimous in the conclusion, however, that the median is a better indicator. Mean tends to give more weight to momentary spikes due to one-time events. Median reveals the audience that is most typical, thus giving a more accurate picture of the core audience, the number of people watching most of the time. (See the sidebar on audience measures for more on this.)

Over all, the median audience for cable news across all three channels in prime time grew by 35%, to 3.64 million, its highest point ever.

Cable News Prime-Time Viewership

1998 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience

Using the industry-preferred metric, the mean or simple average, the prime-time audience grew even more, by 55%. By either measure, more than 3.5 million viewers watched cable news on an average night during 2008, nearly a million more than in 2007.

Although the jump was smaller, daytime cable also grew. The median daytime audience was up 18% from the year before. A record 1.86 million viewers tuned in to the three channels during the year, a rise from the 1.57 million the year before.

Mean audiences were at about 2 million, up 30% from 1.58 million in 2007.

Cable News Daytime Audience

1998 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license
Audience shown is the sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s mean and median audience

The third way of measuring audience is “cume,” short for cumulative audience. This calculation refers to the number of individual (or “unique”) viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes over the course of a month.2 Ratings, by contrast, measure how many people are watching a given program at any one moment. In CNN’s decade-long struggle against Fox News, this is one measurement by which it has consistently surpassed its rival (the cume data used in this report was supplied to PEJ by CNN).

In 2008, cume audiences grew for each of the cable news channels. The median cumulative monthly audience for CNN grew 10% in 2008 to 72.26 million. At Fox, the median cume audience rose less than 1% to 57.07 million. At MSNBC, it rose 6% to 57.42 million.

Cable News Cumulative Audience, by Channel

2002-2008, median audience
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN
Cumulative audience refers to the number of individual viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes over the course of a month.

Fox News disputes the usefulness of the cume measure, at least for commercial purposes. “No one in the industry uses cumulative audience figures, because it is widely regarded as a grossly inaccurate measure of true audience for advertisers,” Fox spokesman Richard White told PEJ in an e-mail message.3 (MSNBC did not respond to PEJ’s query on the matter.)

Nielsen officials tell PEJ that there is no standard time frame for cume and that most television professionals consider a monthly capture to be an acceptable one. The monthly time frame that CNN uses to calculate cume data is also the same one used for unique visitors on the Internet and in that way offers some interesting comparisons. For advertisers, however, it also suggests that while CNN’s reach may be wide, it has a long way to go to get its viewers to watch as often as Fox News does.

Comparing the jump in ratings to the rise in cume also tells us something else. Cable’s ratings growth came more from getting its pool of regular viewers to tune in more than it did from expanding the universe of viewers over all, although it did some of that as well.

Cable News Cumulative Audience

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN

2008: Channel by Channel

The other good news for cable news in 2008 was that all three of the main news channels saw ratings grow.

Fox News, the ratings leader, had the smallest rate of growth.

MSNBC remained in last, but had the greatest rate of growth and by year’s end passed Fox in cume.

CNN narrowed that gap with Fox in ratings slightly and expanded its advantage in cume.

Cable News Prime-Time Audience

February 2007 – February 2009, by Channel
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Audience shown includes Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s average prime-time audience

Cable News Prime-Time Audience, 2008

By Channel
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Cable News Cumulative Audience, 2008

By Channel
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, data provided by CNN

While there were exceptions, the fastest-growing shows continued to be personality-driven talk shows. The new Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC quickly became an audience favorite. Keith Olbermann’s show also continued to grow. And on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly once again had the highest-rated show on cable news.

Cable News Viewership By Program
November 2008

7 p.m. Fox Report with Shepard Smith (2,075,000) Lou Dobbs Tonight (1,238,000) Hardball w/ Chris Matthews (1,175,000) Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell (321,000)
8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor (3,771,000) Campbell Brown (1,314,000) Countdown w/ Olbermann (2,107,000) Nancy Grace (1,063,000)
9 p.m. Hannity & Colmes (2,756,000) Larry King Live (1,705,000) Rachel Maddow Show (1,826,000) Lou Dobbs replay (483,000)
10 p.m. On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteren (2,468,000) Anderson Cooper 360 (1,753,000) Olbermann replay (1,156,000) Nancy Grace replay (611,000)

Source: Nielsen Media Research on
Note: Numbers in parentheses are November 2008 average viewership, people 2+ (Age 2 and up)


While it saw ratings grow sharply, MSNBC remained firmly fixed in third place in 2008 with roughly half the prime-time ratings of Fox.

Over all, MSNBC’s median prime-time audience grew by 57% in 2008 to 766,500 viewers, or 277,500 more than a year earlier.

The year before that, its median audience in prime time had grown 36%, thanks, in part, to the channel developing a clear pattern of liberal talk at night.

MSNBC’s mean prime-time audience in 2008 grew by 78% to 889,300 viewers, an increase of 390,700 over the year before.

MSNBC at Prime Time

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

In daytime, ratings also grew, and at a greater rate than that of CNN or Fox News. The median daytime audience rose 30% to 352,000 viewers, up from 270,000 the year before. The mean daytime audience grew by 43%.

MSNBC at Daytime

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, used under license

When it came to cume, MSNBC’s audience growth was not quite so strong but still steady. In 2008, median cume audience grew by 11% to 57.4 million, up from 51.6 million in 2007. Its mean cumulative audience grew 17%.

When criticism was directed at MSNBC for the on-air behavior of some of its hosts, the network’s leadership pointed to its rapid ratings growth as evidence that it was connecting with audiences. (See News Investment for more.)

In the race for viewership at MSNBC, prime-time hosts Keith Olbermann and newcomer Rachel Maddow became the center of the channel’s strategy for success.

Countdown With Keith Olbermann was MSNBC’s highest-rated show, as it was in 2007. In November 2008, the first airing of the show (it is replayed later at night) drew 2.1 million average viewers. (And much of this occurred after Election Day). That is nearly triple the 793,000 in the same month a year earlier. That made Countdown the fifth-most-watched cable news program among the three channels in November, (behind The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, and Special Report with Brit Hume).

During the year, Olbermann found himself at the center of attention at MSNBC for his opinions as well as his ratings success. But the controversy did not seem to dampen interest in his program. In the period where his views were drawing increased criticism from the right and he was relieved of the anchor role for MSNBC’s election coverage, Olbermann’s regular prime-time audience continued to grow. Countdown went from being the 20th-ranked cable show, drawing an average 804,000 viewers in the second quarter of 2008, to being the 11th-ranked cable show in the third quarter, with an average of 1.2 million viewers.

In September, when the Ph.D.-bearing Rhodes Scholar and Air America radio host Rachel Maddow show replaced The Verdict with Dan Abrams at 9 p.m., she became an instant success. In November, she attracted 2 million viewers, making hers the eighth-most popular cable news program.

The other good news for MSNBC was that, unlike 2007, when some shows were losing audience, the full roster of programs saw growth in 2008.  Hardball With Chris Matthews, for instance, saw audiences triple during the year (after an average of 420,000 viewers in 2007). The post-election program hosted by David Gregory, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, drew more than triple the ratings of the show it replaced, Race for the White House. Morning Joe and MSNBC Live, two daytime shows, both also nearly tripled their ratings. Even a repeat of Countdown With Keith Olbermann later at night averaged over a million viewers, a jump of nearly 200% over the documentary programming it replaced.

Top Shows on MSNBC
November 2007 vs. November 2008

Show Time November 2007 November 2008
Countdown with Keith Olbermann 8 p.m. 793,000 2,107,000
The Rachel Maddow Show (replaced Verdict With Dan Abrams) 9 p.m. 420,000 (Verdict) 1,826,000
Hardball with Chris Matthews 7 p.m. 420,000 1,175,000
Countdown repeat (replaced MSNBC documentaries) 10 p.m. 395,000 1,156,000
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (repaced Race for the White House) 6 p.m. 269,000 851,000
Morning Joe 6 a.m. 229,000 647,000
MSNBC Live 9 a.m. 209,000 558,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research on Media
Note: All numbers are average viewership, people 2+ (people age 2 and up); shows ranked by November 2008 viewership

The Fox News Channel

Starting with higher ratings, Fox News may not have had the same rate of growth as CNN or MSNBC in 2008, but it remained the ratings leader by far, and over all it gained more viewers in 2008 than its rivals.

Fox News’ dominance in overall ratings, with a lower monthly cume, suggests that the channel has been remarkably successful in getting its loyal base of viewers to watch more often and for longer. The key to this is building an audience base for specific programs — so-called “appointment viewers” — something that had eluded CNN and until recently MSNBC as well.

Fox News’ median audience in prime time grew 28% to 1.79 million viewers, up from 1.41 million the year before.

Fox News at Prime Time

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

When measured as mean or simple average, the channel had 40% average growth, to 2.02 million viewers from 1.43 million the year before, an increase of nearly 600,000 viewers.

Daytime growth was not as strong, but it was still positive. The median audience grew 17% to 955,000, or 141,000 more viewers than a year earlier. The mean grew by 265% to 1,028,000, or 211,000 viewers.

For the year, Fox’s median prime-time audience was 70% greater than CNN’s and 134% greater than MSNBC’s.

But those numbers are lower than they were a year earlier. In 2007, Fox News led CNN by 91% and MSNBC by 188%.

Seen another way, nearly half (48%) of all viewers watching prime-time cable news in 2008 were tuned into the Fox News Channel, down from 53% the year before.

In daytime as well, Fox News had the biggest share of the cable news audience, but its lead was trimmed slightly. It captured 50% of the daytime audience, down from 51% the year before.

Fox News at Daytime

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

When it came to monthly cumulative audience, Fox News had only the slightest hint of a gain, less than 1%, and by the end of the year, had fallen to third place, marginally behind MSNBC. Its median prime-time cume was 57.1 million viewers a month, up from 56.9 million a month in 2007. (Its mean gain was much the same, at 58.4 million in 2008, up from 55.8 million.)

All this marks something of a change in cable. For much of this decade, Fox News was growing its audience while MSNBC and CNN were flat or declining. That trend line has now shifted. All three channels are growing (although 2009 may tell a different tale), and in 2008, Fox News’s share of the market declined.

Three factors may have tended to limit Fox News’ audience growth in 2008. One is that Fox News is now available on most cable systems. It can no longer grow, as it did for most of the last decade, by simply becoming available in new homes as it was picked up by new cable providers.

Another possible limit to Fox News in 2008 was the news itself. Polls showed that Democrats were more excited by the race for president that dominated the news in the last two years than were Republicans, and thus tuned into cable to watch more of it. Those viewers, demographic data reveal, were not watching Fox News.

The third factor relates to programming. In 2008, the Fox News program lineup stayed much the same as it was in 2007. That stability may have in some ways inhibited attracting the scale of new viewership achieved by its rivals.

Still, with all that, Fox grew its median audience by roughly a quarter.

That stability in Fox News programming also may make sense. Six Fox News shows ranked among the top 10 in cable news ratings, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

Of these, The O’Reilly Factor was once again No. 1. In November 2008, it averaged 3.8 million viewers, nearly double that of 2007.

Hannity & Colmes was second to O’Reilly, averaging 2.8 million viewers in November. (Colmes has since departed, leaving Hannity without a liberal foil.)

O’Reilly and Hannity were signed to multi-million-dollar contracts that will extend through the next presidential election year, 2012.


After years of audience declines, CNN gained ground in 2008.

It also continued to have the largest potential pool of occasional viewers.

Its challenge, as it has been, continues to be how to build a more loyal fan base around its programming and hosts, and not just around major events.

In prime time, CNN’s viewership grew by nearly half from a year earlier. It attracted a median audience of 1.05 million in 2008, up 43%, or 316,500 more viewers, over the previous year. Using the mean, the growth was even greater, up 68%, to 1.27 million (an increase of 513,800 viewers).

CNN at Prime Time

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

As with its rivals, daytime growth was more modest. Median daytime viewership grew 18%, to 571,000, up from 482,000 in 2007. The mean rose 29% to 626,800 (or by 141,500 viewers).

CNN at Daytime

Median audience, 2007 vs. 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ Analysis of Nielsen Media Research, used under license

And its monthly cumulative audience grew by 10% to 72.3 million viewers. This is over 25% more than Fox News’ or MSNBC’s gains. (When measured in mean, cume increased by 14%, to 74 million, in 2008.)

If more people watch CNN over time, though fewer at any given moment, CNN can claim that it has a wider reach, even though Fox News programs are more popular. CNN has tried to use this metric to sell itself to advertisers despite Fox News’ advantage in ratings. But cume clearly has its limits. The cume data from CNN counts unique viewers as those who watch briefly, for as little as six minutes, in a month.

CNN Programs

Unlike MSNBC and Fox News, CNN’s programming did not tack in an overtly ideological direction in 2008. Among other evidence, this was documented in PEJ’s own content analysis of the general election coverage. According to the channel, this was an intentional move, designed to draw an audience that preferred news with less opinion.

The success of Anderson Cooper 360, a prime-time straight news show, seemed to bolster the argument that there was a market for this kind of cable news. In a sample month of November 2008, Anderson Cooper’s show ranked ninth for cable ratings, and was the only CNN show besides Larry King’s to make the top 10.


CNN’s sister channel, HLN, also had strong audience growth in 2008, and that continued to come on the backs of its prime-time personalities, Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck.

Although the future is not fully certain for HLN, strong ratings for Beck’s replacement, Jane Velez-Mitchell, in early 2009, indicated that efforts to hone its brand may pay off.

In 2008, HLN median prime-time audience rose 23% to 433,500 viewers. That beat the 18% jump the year before. Daytime median audiences grew 10% (to 258,000 viewers).

Median Audience

Year Prime-Time Audience Daytime Audience
2008 433,500 258,000
2007 353,000 235,000
2006 302,000 218,000
2005 307,000 244,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research used under license

Much of HLN’s ratings growth was thanks to the tabloid crime-oriented Nancy Grace Show, which more than doubled its audience over a year earlier. In November, Grace’s 8 p.m. program averaged 1.1 million viewers, up from 489,000 in November 2007.

In 2008, a replay of CNN’s program Lou Dobbs Tonight replaced Showbiz Tonight and became the second-highest-rated HLN Show. Lou Dobbs aired at the 9 p.m. slot, and attracted 483,000 viewers on average during November 2008. Showbiz Tonight at 11 P.M. grew 9% during the year to 414,000 viewers.

The loss of conservative commentator Glenn Beck to Fox initially looked like it could hurt HLN. In the third quarter of 2008, Beck’s last with the channel, his show was averaging 424,000 viewers. In November, Beck’s replacement, Jane Velez-Mitchell, was averaging 367,000 viewers.

But in early 2009, Velez-Mitchell’s program generated headlines with its strong audience numbers. In February, the show was averaging 596,000 viewers.

The Big Stories of 2008

One other question about the audience appeal of cable news was harder to resolve in 2008. Historically, cable news has been the place for audiences to go for unexpected breaking news. In recent years, some evidence had suggested that the Internet was beginning to threaten cable’s hold as the destination for this kind of journalism. The Web has features that allow it to compete for audiences who demand more timely information during major breaking news events. The Internet may allow viewers to get breaking news and have more control over what they see or learn than they have on cable.

The election, while a boon to cable, may not shed as much light on this question as some might expect. Elections are not typical of breaking news events. They are planned, not unexpected. They also play out over months, rather than occurring suddenly for intense but brief periods. And many of the key moments of elections are less events that happen that you want to learn about (a shooting, a bridge collapse, a sudden scandal, for example) than they are events that you want to witness for yourself (such as a speech, a debate, a convention). One feature of campaigns, election nights, possess a ritual quality, watching in groups to witness the results roll in that for some is a television habit.

All of this makes elections peculiar and perhaps well suited to cable, but does not address how the medium will work for more sudden and unexpected breaking news that will fill the next four years.

In 2008 there were relatively few big unexpected breaking news events. The financial crisis occasionally eclipsed campaign coverage in the fall of 2008, and audience levels rose considerably in September and October. This, however, could be attributed to increased interest in the campaign, which included the conventions, the nomination of a black candidate for the first time by a major party and escalating intensity as it neared the finish line.

Cable News Prime-Time Audience During Big Events

Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Average viewers in the respective month; sum of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN’s average prime-time audience

It is possible that the cable business channels were the real ratings winners when it came to the financial crisis. While their audiences were much smaller than those of the cable news channels (Fox Business Network and Bloomberg Television ratings were usually too small to measure), they posted record viewership during key moments in the crisis. For more findings, see the specialty channels section.

The high ratings for cable news were fairly consistent through most of the year. January, August, September and October had sharp increases in audiences. January was the start of the primary campaign, and August through October featured the political conventions, debates, and the financial crisis. The turmoil on Wall Street including the collapse of Lehman Brothers financial services firm probably helped boost September ratings. During the August conventions, cable news beat the broadcast networks in ratings. And in October, the month leading up to the presidential election, cable news saw some of its strongest ratings since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. All of that suggests it is possible that cable may have regained momentum as a breaking-news destination, but it is also true that the Web gained substantially as well (see the Online chapter for more).

What these numbers may also reflect is the idea that cable has pulled more viewers than ever away from traditional network broadcast news — ABC, CBS and NBC. To get firmer answers, 2009 may be important. How will the different television media and the Web fare in relation to each other in a more ordinary news year, if such a year is what awaits us?

For now, to get a deeper sense of this, it is worth taking a closer look at cable audiences and the election of 2008.


Not only did all three major cable channels load their time with the campaign (see Content), but they advertised it, too. CNN bragged of having “The best political team on television.” MSNBC’s slogan was “The place for politics.” Fox News called itself “America’s Election Headquarters.” (For more discussion of how cable news positioned itself in the election year, see News Investment.)

Viewers responded in droves, pushing the cable channels ahead of their broadcast brethren on nights they used to dominate. During the Democratic convention in August, CNN easily beat out all the broadcast networks when 8 million viewers tuned in for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.  Fox News won the most ratings during the Republican convention that followed. The broadcast networks, however, won the ratings on debate nights. During the 10 p.m. hour, when the networks and the cable channels were all carrying the conventions, the networks still had the edge in audience, but the gap had narrowed from four years earlier. (See Network Audience for comparison figures.)

Cable News Average Viewership During Election Events

Campaign Event CNN MSNBC Fox News
Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) 3,640,000 2,110,000 3,490,000
Democratic Convention (Aug. 25-30) 3,152,000 1,586,000 2,836,000
Republican Convention (Sept. 1-7) 2,413,000 1,111,000 4,186,000
First presidential debate (Sept. 26) 5,475,000 3,326,000 6,949,000
Vice-presidential debate (Oct. 2) 7,605,000 3,793,000 9,156,000
Second presidential debate (Oct. 7) 6,746,000 3,270,000 7,209,000
Third presidential debate (Oct. 15) 6,614,000 3,290,000 7,326,000
Election Day (Nov. 4) 12,292,000 5,888,000 9,027,000

Source: Nielsen Media Research on
Note: All figures were for prime-time hours (8 – 11 p.m.). To compare certain hours of cable election coverage to the same hours on network news, see the Network TV chapter.

Analysts wondered what would become of cable news audiences once the election was over. While this is a question for 2009, the initial evidence suggests cable might suffer.

In November and December, ratings dropped steeply at all three cable news channels. By the end of the year, CNN had lost 55% of the prime-time audience it held in October at the peak of the campaign. Fox News and MSNBC bled slightly less, but still lost 42% and 43%, respectively.

By January 2009, with a new administration entering the White House, audiences began to return to cable news. For the month, collectively 4.12 million people watched the three main cable news channels in prime time each night. That was 15% higher than January 2008 (3.57 million viewers).

By February 2009, the cable channels were still drawing greater audiences than a year before, though only by 5%. For the month, 4.39 million tuned in to the cable news channels during prime time, up slightly from 4.19 million in February 2008.

The wide fluctuation in cable audience stands in contrast to the three traditional broadcast network newscasts, which not only remained stable following the election, but even grew a little at the end of the year. The three network newscasts combined had an increase in prime-time viewership of 5% from November to December.

For cable, however, the numbers suggest that there are risks in focusing so narrowly on a single subject or news event.

Cable News Audience Demographics

In 2008, according to survey data, a stark political divide among viewers grew wider.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press examined the correlations between ideology and cable news programming preferences. The survey inquired about specific programs, and not the channels themselves, so we have no way of knowing exactly what ideological types prefer which channels. But the limited number of top news programs included offers an insight into the news consumption habits of cable news audiences.

According to a survey, two Fox News programs led by conservative hosts, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, draw a majority conservative audience.

Audiences for O’Reilly’s show, The O’Reilly Factor, are 66% self-identified politically conservative and 3% liberal. Audiences for Hannity & Colmes (now hosted by Hannity alone) are 68% conservative and 7% liberal.

On the other channels, talk shows hosted by Lou Dobbs (CNN) and Chris Matthews (MSNBC) tend to draw audiences that mirror the public ideologically.

On MSNBC, Hardball With Chris Matthews draws an audience that is 26% liberal and 35% conservative.

On CNN, Lou Dobbs’ audience is 18% liberal and 38% conservative. Larry King Live — a CNN program often focused on celebrity interviews — draws an audience that is 30% liberal and 33% conservative.


1. We define daytime as 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and prime time as 7 to 11 p.m. PEJ began collecting yearly data on HLN in 2007 (see more in respective section).

2. Six minutes per month, a very small amount of audience attention, is in line with standard cume measurement practices, according to a representative from Nielsen.

3. E-mail from Richard White of Fox News, January 9, 2009.