Back in 2012, Jack Shafer, then a media critic with Reuters, wrote, “The cable news audience has peaked.” Thanks to the Internet and other factors, wrote Shafer, audience for the main cable outlets — CNN, Fox News, MSNBC — had started dipping. “Bill O’Reilly? Peaked. Chris Matthews? Peaked. Anderson Cooper? Peaked. Democratic Party outrage over what Fox News said about the president? Peaked.”
If ever there was a phenomenon that could shatter Shafer’s predictions, it was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — the one-man ratings machine that boosted audiences for a string of Republican presidential debates on cable TV outlets last year, not to mention an untold number of interviews, both on the phone and in person.
Alas, Trump couldn’t move the needle quite enough: Though both prime-time and daytime cable audience numbers ticked up in 2015 — a big deal in its own right — they couldn’t eclipse the peak viewership of several years ago. The prime-time viewership for the three main cable news networks improved in 2015 to an average of 3.1 million, from a 2014 average of 2.8 million, according to the just-released and always-much-discussed Pew Research Center State of the News Media report. That’s still down from the 2008 number of 4.2 million. The corresponding figures for daytime viewership climbed from 1.8 million in 2014 to nearly 2 million in 2015 — again, shy of the 2009 mark of 2.2 million.
Pew assesses that the upticks resulted “in part” from interest in the 2016 campaign.
Whatever you do, don’t despair over cable news’ difficulties in growing its television audience. As the Pew report makes clear (again), it’s a highly profitable racket. All three major cable news networks were projected to have secured double-digit profit boosts in 2015 — with Fox News moving to $1.5 billion (up 21 percent), CNN to $381 million (up 17 percent) and MSNBC to $227 million (up 10 percent).
Check back here in exactly a year for the 2016 results, which could well be even better. Cable news networks, after all, will have had an entire year of Trumpalooza, as opposed to just six months in 2015.