TV news ratings, online readership plunge during Biden's first 100 days

Broadcast and cable news ratings, along with website traffic, are all taking a hit in the post-Trump era.

During President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE’s first 100 days in office, weekly full-day cable ratings for CNN and MSNBC have been trending down, according to statistics from ratings company Nielsen.

On average, 1.3 million household viewers were watching MSNBC in the last week of January, shortly after Biden took office. For the week ending April 25, that number was 868,000. At CNN, those figures went from 1.2 million to 749,000.

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Even perennial ratings leader Fox News is seeing a decline, though a much smaller one compared to its cable competitors, dipping to just 1.2 million from 1.3 million in late January.

Prime-time cable viewership is also down across the board. In the same time comparisons as the full-day ratings, CNN has lost 792,000 viewers, while MSNBC is down 788,000 and Fox is short 348,000.

Network evening news isn’t faring any better. Ratings leader “World News Tonight” at ABC had 1.8 million fewer viewers in the seven days ending April 25 compared to the last week of January.

NBC’s “Nightly News,” in the No. 2 slot, lost 1.7 million viewers in that same period, while CBS is down 1.2 million.

Media experts like Scott Robson, a research analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence who studies cable news, say viewership this year essentially peaked during the Jan. 6 insurrection and has been going down since.

“We are seeing a similar trend for the broadcast evening news shows,” he added.

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No cable news or broadcast networks provided a comment to The Hill about the declines.

In addition to ratings, website traffic for major news outlets is also down. 

The number of total unique viewers is down this year for ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News, according to analysis firm Comscore.

Traffic is also down for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Boston Globe, Vice, Vox and BuzzFeed.

Some of those sites had more traffic in March than in February, but all are down since the start of the year.

“I’m sort of hearing, seeing the same thing regarding news ratings, digital subscriptions, etc. since [former President] Trump left office,” said Steve Passwaiter, a vice president and general manager of the campaign media analysis group at media analytics company Kantar.

The declines were not unexpected. Media observers began speculating in late 2020 about how Trump’s absence might affect the industry.

A “change is in the air across a news landscape that has revolved around the president,” New York Times media columnist Ben Smith wrote just days before the election.

When it comes to cable news, there’s little doubt Trump was a ratings bonanza. Nielsen data shows that audiences for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC grew substantially after Trump took office in January of 2017.

From 2010 until 2017, the size of the audience for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC was relatively stable. After Trump took office, however, ratings for all three cable channels rose significantly, reflecting what became known as the “Trump bump.”

The ratings decline under Biden, however, comes on the heels of more than just Trump’s departure from office.

Last year’s numbers were higher than the previous three, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd and a bitter presidential campaign.

“There was a ramp-up in 2020 starting in March with COVID-19 and continuing on,” Robson said. “And yes, things have fallen off since January, but they are now consistent with 2019 numbers, and it’s hard to say if it was because of Trump leaving office or more because COVID-19 news is slowing down.”

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Robson said the recent decline might suggest that “people are relieved they don’t have to check the news every night to see what the latest crisis is.”

And what news they see online isn’t necessarily focused on Biden.

According to a recent report from analysis firm Similarweb, Biden-related content on the websites of top news organizations has generally decreased since his Jan. 20 inauguration.

The company also recorded a significant drop in keyword searches for Biden and Trump since January.

But the overall number of keyword searches for both politicians dropped to 9.3 million in March, from more than 57.6 million in January.

Another indicator was the ratings for Biden's first speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, which drew 26.9 million viewers, 43.6 percent less than the 47.7 million people who watched Trump's first address in 2017.

The overall declines in ratings and web traffic don’t necessarily translate to immediate revenue declines, experts said.

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Robson noted that cable networks generally have already “locked in” their advertisers for this part of the year, so the recent ratings decline might not have a huge effect for now.

In addition, he added, “there are other factors on top of that like the reopening of the economy.”

Both Robson and Passwaiter said the improving economy has bolstered demand for TV advertising.

“The general ad business has come roaring back,” Passwaiter said.

Even when ratings spiked last year — whether from Trump, the election or COVID-19 — Robson said it didn’t always mean more money for news companies.

“Paradoxically, while last year saw an increase in consumption by viewers, there was a decrease in the ad [spending],” Robson said.

“More people were coming to the news networks to see COVID-19 and political news, but at the same time the networks couldn’t capitalize on that viewership as much as they would have liked to because a lot of advertisers were struggling financially,” he said.