Does Cable News Even Matter Anymore?

Have you seen the ratings for cable news channels these days? They aren’t looking good, and are almost pathetic next to the ratings the channels received even just a few years ago.

Take a look at the ratings for just one day, Monday January 19. In daytime ratings, Fox led other networks by a healthy margin with an average viewership of 1,231,000 compared to CNN’s 442,000, MSNBC’s 320,000 and CNBC’s 205,000. Ratings are higher for primetime, with Fox almost doubling its viewership to 2.1 million, and CNN getting 536,000, MSNBC 688,000 and CNBC 451,000. These ratings are fairly typical for the respective channels.

Take a moment to think about this. These supposedly “highly-influential” channels are barely squeaking out a handful of million viewers for Fox, and don’t even top one million viewers for the other cable news channels. O’Reilly Factor still leads all cable shows with more than three million viewers in its first slot, with another million during its late night rerun, but other shows are much more variable in performance.

To make even a stronger point here, cable news rarely draws in middle-of-the-road viewers who are trying to decide what side of the aisle to vote on. Fox and MSNBC in particular are partisan channels that provide red meat (or maybe vegan burgers in the case of MSNBC?) to their viewers. That means that not only are these channels barely able to eke out a small viewership, but they are doing so mostly to partisan diehards.

And yet, the public, comedians, and particularly politicians continue to portray these stations as deeply influential. Nowhere was that point more obvious than over Fox’s mistake over the “Muslim no-go” spaces in France and England that the station ended up having to apologize for. Media sites across the country covered it, often on their front pages. It was a massive screwup, but did it deserve quite this level of attention?

Now, there is a very large caveat to this point, which is that while the channels may not be influential, their associated websites are and help to drive social media. Even here though, I think there is a big gap between our impressions and the reality. Fox News may be one of the largest news sites in the world, but it also ferociously competes on the right with sites like Breitbart and RedState. MSNBC has a popular portal, but competes with HuffPost and others on the left. Their sites are not unimportant, but neither are they dominant in their categories.

This wasn’t always the case. It may be just beyond the memories of my generation, but Fox was tremendously influential in the early years of the Bush administration. But that influence is simply not what it was at its zenith, and we need to adjust our thinking accordingly.

Screen cap of Fox News broadcast used under Fair Use guidelines.