Cable News Ratings: Rachel Maddow Sinks With MSNBC, CNN Rebounds, But Fox News Is Still Untouchable

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There was a brief period following the re-election of President Barack Obama when it looked as if Fox News might tumble from its perennial perch as the most-watched cable news network. Trust in the network was down, and many viewers simply felt duped by Fox commentators who blissfully ignored poll numbers and predicted a win for Mitt Romney. By late 2012, Rachel Maddow had even, on occasion, beat Sean Hannity in the ratings.

But it was all short-lived. As the White House grapples with scandals over the IRS, DOJ and NSA, ratings for MSNBC have plummeted for the period ending June 30. According to quarterly ratings data released this week by Nielsen, the left-leaning network placed fourth in cable news for total viewers -- behind Fox News, CNN and even HLN -- which enjoyed a ratings boost from coverage of the sensational Jodi Arias murder trial -- compared to the same period last year. The numbers show that MSNBC averaged 576,000 primetime viewers, down 16 percent. In the key demo of 25-54, ratings fell 12 percent.

Maddow, MSNBC’s star pupil, had a particularly brutal couple of months, with her “Rachel Maddow Show” logging its lowest-rated quarter since September 2008, when it debuted. “All In With Chris Hayes,” which debuted in April and just finished its first full quarter, posted MSNBC’s lowest rated 8 p.m. hour in the 25-54 demo in nearly seven years.

It was better news for the long-suffering CNN, which moved into second place to finish ahead of MSNBC for the first time since 2009. Six months into Jeff Zucker’s tenure as president of CNN Worldwide, the original cable news network averaged 666,000 primetime viewers, an increase of almost 50 percent. It was even better for Monday-Friday primetime, which averaged 733,000 viewers, up 56 percent.

The numbers bode well for Zucker, who has poured much energy into remaking CNN’s image and revitalizing the brand. But while the stark increase in viewers may be a reason to celebrate, it’s also worth pointing out that CNN’s ratings this time last year were at a 21-year low, so where else was there to go but up? Zucker himself has conceded that it may take three years before CNN rises to become a true rival to Fox News.

But even that far-off prediction seems wildly optimistic when you look at how far ahead of the competition Fox News really is. Fox is not just the most-watched channel in cable news; it’s the third most-watched network on primetime cable television, behind only TNT and USA. CNN and MSNBC don’t even come close, ranking 27th and 30th for the quarter respectively.

In all, Fox News averaged 1.2 million viewers for the quarter, light-years ahead of CNN’s 475,000 and MSNBC’s 360,000. If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that the viewership gap seems to have narrowed in the prized 25-54 demo, at least between Fox and CNN. But if younger viewers are turned off by Fox’s aging talent, it hasn’t put much of a dent in overall performance. “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity” remain the two top-rated shows in cable news, followed by “The Five” and “Special Report With Bret Baier.” In fact, for the entire quarter, Fox swept the top 13 programs in cable news. The network has been No. 1 in total viewers for 138 consecutive months.

Not surprisingly, Fox News bragged about the quarterly numbers in a press release, and a spokesperson for the network made certain to point out MSNBC’s ratings woes in an email. A spokesperson for MSNBC did not return a request for comment.

MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ:CMCSA). CNN and HLN are part of the Turner Broadcasting System, a unit of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE:TWX). Fox News Channel is owned by Fox Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s newly formed 21st Century Fox (NASDADQ:FOX).

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