In the years before the 2016 election, cable news was approaching a demographic cliff and an existential crisis. Average primetime viewership on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC had declined by about a third between 2008 and 2014. The median age of each channel’s viewers had crept into the late-60s or early 70s, as younger consumers turned to websites and social-media feeds for their daily news morsels.
But in 2015, Donald Trump descended an escalator, a slow-motion meteorite crashing into the earth with biosphere-altering potential. One cable-news channel immediately recognized how the impact could change the landscape of cable news and politics.
CNN president Jeff Zucker conspicuously transformed his network into the 24-hour Donald Trump Show. Rivals scoffed, but the decision paid off. The network’s primetime viewership rose 38 percent in 2015. Meanwhile in that same period, Fox News’ audience flatlined, and MSNBC’s primetime viewership actually declined. As Jonathan Mahler writes in The New York Times Magazine, Zucker was perfectly positioned for this moment, given his familiarity with Trump’s telegenic antics. As the former president of NBC Entertainment, Zucker had broadcast “The Apprentice,” overseeing a tabloid villain’s journey to boardroom hero.
So, Jeff Zucker would appear to be the cable news genius this era deserves. “In a sense, no one is better suited to navigate the terra incognita of Trump’s America than Zucker,” Mahler writes.
There’s just one problem. Zucker justified Trump saturation in 2015 by pointing to the ratings. But the freshest data shows that CNN has now slipped to third-place behind MSNBC, while both are still being lapped by Fox News. The truer and simpler story is that Zucker was the first executive to run the Trump Show all day, every day. But once every cable news network did the same, ratings took off across cable news—and at the expense of basically everything else on television.
It is a golden age for cable news. Fox News is the most popular channel on cable. In the first three months of this year, it had the best quarter in history of cable news, led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” which had the biggest quarter ever for a cable news program. MSNBC grew more than 50 percent in both daytime and primetime, and CNN’s weekend ratings remain extremely strong.
The Trump bump for TV happened almost entirely on cable. National broadcast news audiences barely increased in 2016, according to new Nielsen data. Local news actually declined. But national cable news viewership grew by 44 percent, with the average American over 50 watching eight hours of cable news a week.
Rather than grow overall television viewing, the election and its aftermath have taken a larger slice of a shrinking pie. Live sports, once seen as the keystone of the cable bundle, are dwindling. NFL ratings declined significantly in the fall, since the world’s most ludicrous hail mary was being thrown in the political arena. Soccer ratings are down. Hockey, too. Local ratings for NBA games were down 15 percent as recently as February, and the popularity of political news was widely seen as the culprit.
The old age of cable news viewership once seemed to me a profound weakness. But perhaps it’s cable news’ greatest strength. Americans over the age of 65 watch 16 percent more TV than they did in 2010, while every other age group has declined. Viewership among 18-to-24-year olds is down a whopping 49 percent. Cable news is catnip for television’s only growing demographic (which happens to include the president himself), and Trump is catnip for cable news. It is a double rainbow for ratings.
Then again, rainbows disperse and so may this moment. Donald Trump will not be president in a decade, barring some major constitutional overhauls. Some of the 70-year-olds who are cable news’ key demographic are not likely to be around either. Pay television is a massive business, with a profound ability to shape political narratives and rescue quarterly earnings reports. Still, this moment for cable news may reveal itself, in a few years, to be more viking funeral than new dawn.
But for now, Trump is cable news, and cable news is Trump. In 2015, Jeff Zucker wandered into a goldmine, got rich, and was immediately joined by all of his rivals. He might or might not be a television savant, but it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s happening in his medium. The Trump Show is eating television.