Cable News Readies for 2020 Presidential Election Ratings Bump

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC are looking to cash in like they did in 2016

Mashup of anchor photos from CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel
Sustaining any audience and ad revenue bumps once the election ends will be a challenge.
Fox: Lacy Landre; MSNBC: Rob Kim/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Courtesy CNN

The cable news networks are already focused on elections again, even though the 2019 races have barely ended. That’s because for outlets like Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC, presidential elections—like the upcoming 2020 race—present a unique opportunity to expand their audiences and attract Americans seeking information on the candidates as they prepare to head into the voting booth. After the ratings and ad revenue windfalls they enjoyed in 2016, the networks are looking to build on those numbers in 2020.

The 2016 presidential race propelled all three cable news networks to what, at the time, was each of their most watched years ever in prime-time total viewers (though Fox News and MSNBC topped those numbers in 2018). Fox News’ audience jumped between 29% and 42% year over year in prime time and total day, among total viewers and in the key adults 25-54 demo for cable news advertisers, while CNN’s increases ranged from 54% to 80% and MSNBC jumped a whopping 71% to 97%, per Nielsen. Together, the three networks raked in an estimated $2 billion in ad revenue that year.

As Fox News Media evp of marketing, Jason Klarman, explained to Adweek earlier this fall, “There’s 30% of the people who are never going to stop watching us, there are 30% of the people who are never going to watch us and then there’s everybody else in the middle.”

Paul Friedman, a TV news industry consultant who spent decades as a high-level producer and executive at ABC, NBC and CBS News, said Fox News’ strategy of going for the “undecideds” does make sense, especially considering that a solid percentage of the electorate is undecided. However, he continued, “[Fox News, CNN and MSNBC’s] identities are pretty clear now, and it’s hard to imagine that any of them will come up with an idea that builds very much on their core audience.”

Fox News, which remains the No. 1 cable news network in total viewers and in the 25-54 demo, is already looking to lure that remaining 40% as part of a total election coverage rebrand. It has transitioned from its long-running America’s Election Headquarters show to the new Democracy 2020. Last month, it rolled out a new “It’s in Your Hands” marketing campaign, which, instead of featuring Fox News talent, spotlights everyday Americans and the decision they’ll be making in next year’s election.

“Brands live within the culture, and, as we were looking at the election brand, we wanted to embrace and reflect what was happening in the electorate,” said Klarman, noting that 50% of voters participated in the 2018 midterms, compared to one-third in 2014. “People are far more engaged in the political process than they have been in more than 50 years.”

While the networks agree there is a passionate electorate hungry for information, they differ on how to best reach them. CNN is focusing less on marketing campaigns and instead using its live events to draw viewers, including televised debates and Citizen by CNN, its civil engagement platform designed to bring people together to discuss political issues and motivate them to vote. Citizen by CNN held its annual conference in New York in October and hosted a forum in July, with more Citizen-branded events planned for 2020.

“It comes down to doing important, interesting and in-depth coverage about the candidates and about the issues with events that matter and where candidates have an opportunity to go directly to the voters,” said CNN Washington, D.C., bureau chief Sam Feist, adding that voters get much of their information about whom they’re going to vote for in both the primaries and general election “through interviews and from town halls.” When it comes to election coverage, “we believe that viewers are drawn to depth and experience, and we have both,” said Feist.

MSNBC declined to comment on its strategy to grow its audience during the 2020 race. However, the network recently launched a new marketing campaign under the “This Is Who We Are” umbrella, touting NBC News and MSNBC’s reporting and highlighting its roster of hosts and reporters that are breaking news and providing political analysis.

But while all three networks should expect another audience and ad revenue bump next year, sustaining those numbers once the election ends will be a bigger challenge. For that large percentage of the electorate that is up for grabs this election, “it’s unlikely that they’re going to become permanent, constant viewers of Fox, CNN or MSNBC all of a sudden,” said Friedman. “What they’ll do is probably what they do now: watch a little bit of everything.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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