Say what you want about the outcome, but the 2016 presidential election cycle was unlike any the news media has ever experienced. As you might expect, cable news reaped significant benefits from the volatility of the race in the form of huge ratings.
Fox News beat CNN in total audience on election night 2016 during the full coverage block, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Per Nielsen data, FNC delivered 12.2 million viewers compared to CNN's 11.2 million. Fox News' viewership climbed on an hourly basis through midnight, while both CNN and MSNBC peaked at around 10 p.m. The ratings trends seem make sense considering now President-elect Donald Trump gained momentum as the night went on, while Hillary Clinton steadily lost steam. Fox News also beat CNN in the all-important 2-3 a.m. time period, when the race was called.
CNN did make some ratings history in prime time, as 13.3 million total viewers tuned into the network's Election Night in America coverage. CNN was the most-watched network in prime time across both cable and broadcast, and it also beat Fox News in the news demo during the full coverage block.
The fact that cable news ratings were significantly up in 2016 from previous election nights once again illustrates that people are increasingly tuning into networks that feature talent who share their beliefs.
The 2016 election ratings bonanza began with Fox News' presentation of the first Republican primary debate on Aug. 6, 2015. The telecast delivered 24 million total viewers, which at the time was a cable television record. The first GOP debate remains the most-watched nonsports program in cable television history. But the record-setting viewing figures didn't stop there. The first general election debate of 2016 between Clinton and Trump took place on Sept. 26 and became the most-watched presidential debate in U.S. television history, when 84 million viewers tuned in across 13 Nielsen-measured English- and Spanish-language networks.
Altogether, Clinton-Trump 2016 delivered the most total viewers of any U.S. presidential debate cycle in TV history. The three Clinton-Trump debates and the Mike Pence-Tim Kaine debate delivered a combined 259 million viewers, beating the previous record of 250 million who tuned into the three George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton-Ross Perot presidential debates and the Dan Quayle-Al Gore-James Stockdale vp debate in 1992.
The Republican primary debates provided multiple cable news networks with their most viewers ever. The 24 million who tuned into the first GOP debate on Fox News gave the network its most-watched telecast ever. CNN exclusively televised the second GOP debate, which in turn gave the network its most-watched telecast ever, delivering 23 million viewers on Sept. 16, 2015. The 13.5 million viewers who tuned into Fox Business on Nov. 10, 2015 for the fourth Republican primary debate gave the fledgling network its most-watched program ever, as well as the most-watched day in network history.