Cable News Viewership Down Across The Board

Fewer Americans are watching cable news networks, and that's not surprising.

Statistics for 2010 seem to indicate that America’s diet for 365/24/7 news coverage may have reached a saturation point:

After years of audience growth, cable news may have hit a wall.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the News Media report, cable news viewership for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News fell substantially in 2010 — 13.7 percent in aggregate for a sharper decline than any other sector. Broadcast news, which has experienced declining viewership for years, was down another 3.4 percent in 2010.

And the cable news networks’ declines were sharpest in primetime, where median viewership plummeted 16 percent to an average of 3.2 million, while daytime tune-in was down 12 percent.

And for the first time in the dozen years since PEJ has been monitoring the cable news networks, every channel was down. CNN — with its well-publicized primetime woes — was down the most in 2010, dropping 37% to 564,000 viewers. But Fox News, the No. 1 cable news network, declined 11 percent. And MSNBC — which finished 2010 ahead of CNN in primetime in news’ target demographic of 25-54-year-olds and total viewers — was down 5 percent.

“What [the audience erosion] suggests is that we may have reached a peak in cable news viewership,” says Amy S. Mitchell, Deputy Director for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s not that people are not watching cable, they’re just not turning to news as much.”

That’s part of it, but I think it’s also the case that viewers may be coming to realize that, unless there’s a national or international crisis going on, there’s very little reason to watch a news channel all the time. When I’m working in the office, I tend to keep either CNN or MSNBC on in the background during the day and, invariably, the same stories, with the same video segments, get repeated several times during the day. The only variation comes when there’s a live event or a “Breaking” news event (and, far too often that “Breaking” news tends to be something irrelevant like the latest news about Charlie Sheen or, I kid you not, what Lindsay Lohan was wearing when she walked into court). Something that started out as a great idea by Ted Turner, a cable channel devoted solely to covering the news, has turned into something far different.

In addition to the fact that there just doesn’t seem to be enough “news” for three always-on news networks, there’s also the fact that, especially in the evenings, most of the programming has turned into little more than propaganda for the left or the right. MSNBC and Fox News Channel have become, for the most part, mirror images of each other from 5pm until 11pm on weeknights. CNN tries to be different and, in some cases (John King and Anderson Cooper come to mind) they succeed, but it’s worth noting that they are, almost invariably, in third place behind the two blowhard stations during weekday evenings.

There’s no denying that cable news has an influence on political debate in this country. For the most part, to the extent it means people are well-informed, that’s a good thing. To the extent it means that they get their interpretation of the news from the likes of Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity,. and Ed Schultz, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Nonetheless, as these numbers remind us, it’s worth noting that the number of people that watch any of these cable news networks is a small part of the television audience as a whole, and it isn’t hard to see why.



FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. LCB says:

    Wow…I’m scared, Doug. I agree 100% with everything you said. That’s never happened before! 🙂

  2. Mike says:

    “Cable viewership down” is the best news I’ve heard in a long time. There are few things that have contributed more to the decline of the US than cable news…

  3. Brett #2 says:

    This is good news, but we’ll have to wait another year or two to see if it’s really a trend, as opposed to a conflation of factors creating a bad year.

    I would suggest that we read the whole “State of the News Media” report, which has other interesting bits of information in it:

    1. Newspapers were the only category of news that suffered continued revenue declines.

    2. (not surprisingly) News Sources on-line are increasingly dependent on third-party sites, such as aggregators, social networking sites, and ad networks to generate ad revenue. I consider this a good thing, since it allows for greater specialization and possibly smaller overhead for the news sources.

    3. 47% of some Americans get local news on a mobile device. I think this is interesting not just because of the fact that nearly half of Americas are reading local news via mobile, but that at least nearly half of Americans have a mobile device capable of internet access. *

    * Speaking of which, how much science fiction (or even futurism) from, say, the 1980s and 1990s predicted the Mobile Revolution? Tricorders don’t count.

  4. pcbedamned says:

    The best decision I ever made was the day I turned Fox News off for good. Within an hour my blood pressure went down, within a day, I swear, there was the semblance of a smile, and within a week, my children had an actual mother rather than a raving lunatic screaming at the TV.
    Now, if only I could give up smoking……

  5. Wayne says:

    As I recall, the broadcast News have been in sharp decline as well as many of the MSM “news” sources and by a good deal. So basically fewer people are getting news from the traditional sources. I say that is probably a good thing.

    The article only states Primetime. I wonder what the rest of the 24 hour news channel audience is like. I predict that once the Presidential campaigns get going that rating will increase once again for most of the news media.

    P.S. Doug watches mainly MSNBC and CNN. Why does that not surprise me? I bet Doug has a strong opinion about Rush to but doesn’t ever to him. Sorry Doug but I had to throw that in.

  6. Wayne,

    I used to watch Fox but found it mind-numbing and impossible to watch, same goes for Limbaugh

  7. owlgore says:

    I won 20 bucks the other night, I bet my husband if we turned it to PMSNBC, the subject would be either Palin, Beck or Rush. Yea, it was Palin. You can’t get news on PMSNBC, they’re too busy talking about people who really can’t do a damn thing to anybody. It’s just their way of distracting us from this administration.

  8. mantis says:

    All cable news is garbage. Haven’t watched in years. Good to see the cable news stations’ numbers go down. Maybe one of them will discover journalism in response.

  9. G.A.the Friendly Troll says:

    Why would you need cable news when you have comedy central?

  10. Wayne says:

    Doug I watch all three. The point is if you like MSNBC which is way left then it is probably due to your philosophy. I lean right and I know that. I take it into account during my analyses. I still will come to conclusion base in part on my biases but I try to acknowledge at least to myself that I am doing so.

    I have stuck up out of fairness for many on the left many of times including Hillary, Bill and the Intel Chief assessment on China and Russia. However I don’t fool myself in thinking that I’m “always” fair by no means. Many people think they are not bias and are always fair. Simply not true. They won’t admit where their bias lies.

  11. tom p says:

    Now, if only I could give up smoking……

    pc, try Chantix, not cheap (150/ mo) but the dreams alone are worth the price of admission.

    What’s more, after 36 yrs I finally quit. (now at 6+ mos and counting)

  12. pcbedamned says:

    tom p

    pc, try Chantix, not cheap (150/ mo) but the dreams alone are worth the price of admission.

    Hmmmm, can think of cheaper ways to get those dreams….LOL & JK

    What’s more, after 36 yrs I finally quit. (now at 6+ mos and counting)

    THAT is bloody Awesome!!!! Props to you. Alas it is my one and only vice, and I am not quite ready to give it up *sigh* My giving up of ‘cable news’ {esp. Fox 24/7} was my contribution to my health.
    Also, too, my kids kinda enjoy not having that screaming lunatic.
    One step at a time…

  13. G.A.the Friendly Troll says:

    What’s more, after 36 yrs I finally quit. (now at 6+ mos and counting)

    Good for you Tom:)

  14. Tristan says:

    Thank god, people watch enough of that shit as it is. I’m not saying there’s no place whatsoever for hyper partisan rhetoric…but I am saying it’s too powerful in the US at the moment.

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    I blame Netflix. I haven’t had access to television in…well probably a decade. No cable, no satellite, or even an antenna on the roof. Nada. I watch stuff all the time though via Netflix. I get 4 DVDs at a time, and unlimited streaming for a fraction of the costs.

    Only reason to stick with cable or satellite: sports. But as I don’t watch much sports, that isn’t enough reason to pay for cable or satellite.

  16. Brett #2 says:

    Only reason to stick with cable or satellite: sports. But as I don’t watch much sports, that isn’t enough reason to pay for cable or satellite.

    There’s also stuff like HBO, if you don’t want to wait for DVDs to hit Netflix.

    Truth be told, if it weren’t for HBO series, Mad Men, College Football, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, I’d cut my cord and go solely off of a digital antenna plus DVDs and computer streaming.

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