Approximately 10.6 million viewers on Saturday night turned to the cable news networks as a Florida jury returned a “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
According to Nielsen, Fox News Channel on July 13 drew the biggest crowd in the 10-11 p.m. time slot, averaging 3.68 million viewers, edging CNN by a margin of 275,000. (CNN handily won the dollar demo, averaging 1.72 million adults 25-54 to FNC’s 1.11 million.)
CNN sibling HLN averaged 2.2 million viewers and 980,000 adults 25-54 while MSNBC drew 1.3 million viewers and 510,000 members of the news demo.
The deliveries marked a radical improvement over the sort of ratings the news nets pull on a typical Saturday night. Per Nielsen, FNC averaged 2.7 million viewers between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Sunday, more than quadrupling its calendar-year average in the slot (629,000). FNC also saw a huge lift in the demo, averaging 896,000 adults 25-54, up more than seven times its year-to-date average in the three-hour period (124,000).
CNN’s gains were nothing short of staggering. The network averaged 2.42 million viewers in the 10 p.m.-1 a.m. slot, nearly six times the 384,000 viewers it usually draws during that span. CNN improved its standing in the core demo ninefold, growing from 135,000 adults 25-54 to 1.24 million.
HLN and MSNBC also enjoyed significant increases, although the night clearly belonged to FNC and CNN.
Arguably the most closely watched courtroom drama since the Casey Anthony trial (which also played out in Florida), the Zimmerman affair concluded on the heels of a strong second quarter for FNC and CNN. Fox News in Q2 averaged 1.18 million viewers in total day, up 12 percent versus the year-ago period, while CNN soared 49 percent to 476,000.
The two rivals are much closer in the dollar demo, with FNC averaging 240,000 adults 25-54 in Q2 (down 6 percent) and CNN drawing 162,000 (up 69 percent). Meanwhile, HLN actually beat MSNBC in the demo, averaging 142,000 adults 25-54 in total-day (up 48 percent), while MSNBC dipped 5 percent to 123,000.
While it’s hard to argue with CNN’s recent success, critics have excoriated the network for devoting too much attention to smaller stories like the infamous “Poop Cruise,” Paula Deen’s shame spiral and the Zimmerman trial at the expense of covering global events. In the waning days of the trial, CNN effectively ignored the unfolding crisis in Egypt, offering instead a nonstop deluge of Zimmerman minutiae. In early July, CNN only turned its eyes to Egypt when the court proceedings were halted. As one wag put it, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (except when the Zimmerman trial is in recess).”
Then again, given the ever-shrinking American attention span and our seeming lack of interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, perhaps the news networks are all simply giving the people what they want.