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US TV ratings plunge after early years of Trump and trauma

As the news cycle has calmed down under President Joe Biden and the pandemic has subsided, US media groups have suffered dramatic declines in viewership, prime-time ratings viewership of cable TV news networks CNN and MSNBC dropping more than 50% in the third quarter from a year ago. There are.

Last year’s Donald Trump cocktail party, a deadly pandemic, the US presidential election and historic racial protests have sparked record interest in following the news – propelling cable TV stations, newspapers and others journalistic enterprises towards heights of audience and income.

Now, these groups face an equally dizzying fall on land.

Primetime ratings for AT&T-owned CNN fell 52% in the third quarter for viewers ages 25 to 54, a key demographic for TV viewers, according to Nielsen figures. advertisers. MSNBC, the left-leaning network owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal, suffered a 51% drop, while Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing Fox News fared relatively better, with prime-time ratings dropping 37%. % in the quarter for this demographic.

“These are uncharted waters after the Trump bump,” said Ken Doctor, founder of California-based startup Lookout. “It is highly unlikely that we will see another bump like this in the next 10 years.”

This time last year, Trump was delivering drama around the clock. Americans faced another grim wave of the pandemic as the weather turned cold with no Covid-19 vaccine in sight. Protests had raged across the United States all summer, while many workers were cooped up at home rather than in the office. Whether they sought comfort from Fox’s Tucker Carlson or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Americans from all political backgrounds were glued to their screens.

The Biden era has been decidedly calmer, while broad access to vaccines has helped temper coronavirus deaths. Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch had told investors that this year’s decline was expected.

“We are now seeing an expected decline in viewership since the election,” Murdoch said in February, which was “in line with previous election cycles.” He added, “We expect news ratings to normalize and Fox News to continue to dominate.”

However, the Trump era had kept Americans captivated by the news even after his 2016 election victory, defying typical trends. Fox News’ primetime ratings for adults ages 25-54 fell just 5% in the third quarter of 2017, compared to 2016. CNN’s ratings also fell 5%, while MSNBC climbed 29% as Trump’s opposition network.

This year’s reduced audience has financial consequences for these groups. Kagan, part of S&P Market Intelligence, estimates MSNBC’s net operating income will rise from $1.1 billion last year to $940 million this year, while Fox News will rise from $3.1 billion. dollars to $2.8 billion.

The fallout is not limited to television. The New York Times in the first half of this year added 443,000 digital subscribers, a sharp slowdown from the 1.2 million added in the first half of 2020.

Meredith Kopit Levien, chief executive of The New York Times, told investors in May that the news cycles of the past five years had fueled “unprecedented demand for Times journalism.” However, she added that “we are very confident that the news is still generating wide interest”.

“I don’t think the world is getting any less interesting,” Kopit Levien said. “I don’t think it gets any less complex.”

Associated Press editor Julie Pace told the Financial Times that the end of the Trump era “gives us a chance not to pingpong between the controversies of the day in Washington.”

“It catches the eyeballs, but it blocked out the sun in some ways,” said Pace, who had served as the news agency’s Washington bureau chief during the Trump administration.

After soaring high under Trump, news organizations face broader questions about the future of their business, particularly as audiences shift away from traditional television and print media toward digital alternatives.

“Presidential politics can certainly catalyze a lot of viewing, like any ongoing drama, and you’ve had both in the last year,” said Brian Wieser, president of business intelligence at ad agency GroupM. “Corn [TV] viewing will continue to decline at a fairly rapid rate [due to cord-cutting]. So in four years, in total [TV] viewers will be 15-20% lower.

Doctor sees the correction as a wake-up call to the industry: “It is clear that news organizations of all sizes, national, local and global, cannot depend on explosive news cycles to model their business.”