Aug 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Trump indictments boost MSNBC primetime ratings

Data: Adweek, Mediaite; Nielsen; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
Data: Adweek, Mediaite; Nielsen; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

MSNBC has seen a boost in prime-time ratings this summer, thanks in large part to its coverage of the slew of indictments against former President Donald Trump.

Why it matters: Fox News has been the undisputed cable news ratings leader for years. But Trump's legal woes, combined with Tucker Carlson's departure from Fox, have helped MSNBC close in on Fox News' prime-time lead several times in the past few months.

Driving the news: MSNBC beat Fox News in prime time last Monday and Tuesday evenings thanks to its coverage of Trump's indictment in a fourth major case in Georgia over efforts to overturn the presidential election's outcome.

  • Rachel Maddow's interview with Hillary Clinton after the indictment drew an unprecedented 3.9 million viewers on Monday evening.
  • The network narrowly beat Fox News in prime time on Monday, July 10, as well, although it surpassed Fox more consistently during the second quarter.
  • Mondays tend to be MSNBC's highest-rated prime-time evenings, given that's when Maddow continues to regularly host her 9pm show.

Flashback: MSNBC started beating Fox News in prime time periodically following Carlson's departure in April.

  • The network beat Fox News in prime-time ratings for a full week in early June during its coverage of Trump's second indictment on charges relating to classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, ending Fox News' 120-week prime-time winning streak.
  • Throughout several points during the second quarter, MSNBC also beat Fox News in the prized 25- to 54-year-old advertising demographic.
  • While most of the country is experiencing some level of fatigue over Trump's legal battles, MSNBC's viewership has increased with each subsequent indictment.

Yes, but: Fox News has been able to regain much of the viewership it lost following Tucker Carlson's exit by installing Jesse Watters as permanent host of the 8pm hour in July and by replacing Laura Ingraham with Greg Gutfeld during the 10pm hour.

  • Even after Maddow's big ratings win last Monday and MSNBC's beat on Tuesday, Fox News was back to winning total prime-time viewership across the three networks by Wednesday last week.
  • And it did that while featuring a rotating cast of hosts in the 8pm hour while Jesse Watters was out for the week.
  • While the network saw viewership declines year-over-year last quarter, Fox News still remained the top cable news network in prime time by a landslide. For the month of July, that momentum continued.

Be smart: Both CNN and Fox experienced major disruptions during the second quarter, giving MSNBC an edge over its competitors.

  • In the second quarter of the year, MSNBC saw a double-digit percentage increase in overall viewership compared to the same quarter the year prior, while CNN and Fox News saw year-over-year viewership declines.
  • CNN CEO Chris Licht was fired in June after weeks of internal drama. Fox News settled a historic $787 million defamation case and abruptly fired Carlson shortly thereafter.

Between the lines: CNN has been unable to tap into the same level of ratings success as MSNBC, in part due to its commitment under its new ownership to lean into straight news and reporting over opinion and partisan analysis.

  • Last week, the network announced an overhaul of its schedule, adding Abby Phillip — a hard news political correspondent — to its prime-time anchor lineup following Kaitlan Collins, previously the network's chief White House correspondent.

What to watch: Fox News will air the first Republican presidential debate on Wednesday.

Note: The author of this article is a paid contributor for CNN.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that MSNBC beat Fox News in prime time on Monday, July 10, not July 9.

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