Cable news networks rode the wildest election cycle in years to record ratings and an uptick in advertising revenues. But, now that the election is over, how much will the networks' ratings suffer?
More than 71 million Americans watched election night coverage on broadcast and cable TV this week, with CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC pulling in more than 31 million viewers combined during primetime in a record night for cable news. The night was a culmination of what has been a must-see-TV year for cable news, including record-setting viewership for the presidential debates this fall and during the primaries. Primetime ratings for those three cable networks have been up 50% over last year in 2016 and media research firm SNL Kagan expects cable news advertising sales to reach almost $2 billion this year, which would represent a 15% bump over 2015.
With the election over, the expectation is that cable news networks' days of record ratings are also over, at least until the next big election. While Americans may not have been able to look away from their TVs during the election, the common refrain is that many people are worn out from the overwhelmingly toxic election cycle. The media has also seen plenty of backlash from those who feel that the endless coverage of Donald Trump's campaign, which handed him billions of dollars in free advertising, fueled the divisive billionaire's drive to the White House. (Not to mention those who blame the media for failing to accurately predict the election's outcome.)
Amid that backlash, and the relative lack of post-election action, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Paul Sweeney told Fortune he expects cable news networks to see their election-fueled ratings quickly dip back to more normal viewership levels. "Historically, what we've seen in past [election] cycles is that these networks lose, essentially, all of those short-term gains after the election is over," Sweeney said. "And, they go back to a more normalized audience level and advertising revenue level. I suspect that's what will happen this time around."
Of course, any drop-off is bad news for the networks' parent companies, which have suffered from the rise in cord-cutting that eats into cable subscriber totals and have relied on strong cable news ratings this year to boost their revenue and profits. NPR recently reported that Time Warner-owned CNN made roughly $100 million more in ad revenues this year than in past election years, as CNN could reportedly approach $1 billion in profit this year for the first time in the network's history. CNN may be pulling closer to Fox News in the ratings race (CNN had huge October ratings), but the network is still working to narrow the earnings gap, with SNL Kagan estimating almost $1.7 billion in 2016 profits for Fox News this year.
Now, as the networks' coverage shifts from the roller-coaster ride of the election to the intrigue of Trump's transition into the White House, Bloomberg's Sweeney says each of the three big cable news networks will still have its core audience. "The audience tends to retreat to their own corner, if you will," he said. "So, more conservative viewers will go to Fox, more liberal viewers will go to MSNBC, and what's left in the middle tends to go to CNN, typically."
And, the cable news business can still be hopeful that Trump's big election win could keep viewers glued to their televisions even after the election, depending on whether or not some of the incendiary rhetoric that propelled Trump to the presidency continues once he actually begins to govern. Sweeney points out that the cable news industry still has some "cautious optimism that the Trump presidency will be of so much interest to so many people that it will drive, perhaps, some stronger viewership post-election."