2021 Ratings: CNN Has Its 2nd-Most-Watched Year Ever, But Sees Sharp Declines in 2nd Half

By A.J. Katz 

From a historic presidential campaign, to early coronavirus pandemic coverage, and social justice protests, 2020 was a record year for CNN.

2021 was a bit different. There was no presidential election for the network to cover and, while the pandemic continues to rage on, the overall news cycle was a bit less “eventful,” than the previous year, a fact which resulted in a significant decline in viewership, particularly in the second half of the year.

That being said, 2021 was still CNN’s second-most-watched year in the network’s history. CNN also averaged more adults 25-54 than rival MSNBC, but averaged fewer A25-54 viewers than Fox News for the full year. CNN averaged fewer total viewers than both MSNBC and Fox News in 2021.

CNN will also close out 2021 as one of the five-most-watched networks in all of cable in all dayparts. In Total Day, the network ranks No. 3 in total day and No. 5 in primetime. CNN was also among the 10-most-watched cable networks in 2021 among adults 25-54, coming in at No. 5 in Total Day and No. 9 in primetime.

Overall, CNN averaged 1,078,000 total viewers in prime time, 268,000 adults 25-54 in prime time, 773,000 total viewers across the 24-hour day and 185,000 adults 25-54 across the 24-hour in 2021.

What do these figures look like compared to its final 2020 ratings? Well, CNN fell -40% in total prime time viewers, -48% in the prime time demo (adults 25-54), -32% in total viewers across the 24-hour day and -40% among adults 25-54 across the 24-hour day.

CNN traditionally thrives in election years and loses a significant number of viewers in “off” years; more fluctuation than Fox News and MSNBC experience. That trend held up in 2021. There also tends to be more fluctuation among adults 25-54 (and younger demos) than among total viewers (or older demos) on an annual basis. This makes sense considering younger viewers are more likely to tune into cable news during an election year and less likely to follow the news closely in an off year. The year 2021 was of course not an election year, whereas 2020 was.

Compared to the most-recent “off-election year” (2019), CNN posted growth across the board, up +11% in total prime time viewers and +5% among adults 25-54 in prime time; +19% in total viewers across the 24-hour day and +14% among adults 25-54 across the 24-hour day.

Here are the final 2021 Nielsen live+same-day numbers:

  • Prime Time (Mon-Sun): 1,078,000 Total Viewers / 268,000 A25-54
  • Total Day (Mon-Sun):  773,000 Total Viewers / 185,000 A25-54

On the CNN program ratings front: The Lead with Jake Tapper ranked No. in cable news at 4 p.m. in 2021 in the A25-54 demo for the second consecutive year.

All CNN dayside programs (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) beat MSNBC in the key A25-54 demo. However, these shows finished runner up to MSNBC in total viewers and behind Fox News, both in the demo and among total viewers.

Additionally, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (6 p.m.) outperformed MSNBC in 2021 among adults 25-54 for the 8th consecutive year and Erin Burnett Outfront (7 p.m.) also out-performed MSNBC for the 8th consecutive year. Both shows finished runner-up to Fox News. Anderson Cooper 360 beat its MSNBC 8 p.m. competition for the 8th year out of the past time. Cuomo Primetime/CNN Tonight finished third in the 9 p.m. hour in all categories, while Don Lemon Tonight topped MSNBC at both 10 and and 11 p.m. for the second year in a row.

Finally, in 2021, CNN premiered nine CNN Original Series, with each of them ranking No. 1 or No. 2 in cable news during their respective time periods in either total viewers and/or in the A25-54 demo, led by Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.

Below, find CNN’s Nielsen ratings release for 2020 (CNN’s data is through Dec. 16, 2021):

CNN HAS SECOND MOST-WATCHED YEAR EVER IN 2021

CNN ENDS YEAR AS TOP FIVE CABLE NETWORK ACROSS THE BOARD

CNN HAS SECOND LARGEST SHARE OF CABLE NEWS AUDIENCE IN 21 YEARS

CNN ORIGINAL SERIES ARE TOP-RATED ON SUNDAYS

CNN Beats MSNBC in 2021 in Every Daypart, including Total Day, Prime Time, Dayside & Weekends

CNN Surpasses MSNBC in Demo for Second Consecutive Year in Prime Time; Eighth Year in Total Day

CNN will end 2021 enjoying its second most-watched year ever, dating back to its launch in 1980. Its total viewer audience is second only to 2020, meaning the last two years have been CNN’s two most-watched years ever.

In addition, CNN will also close out 2021 as a top five network in all of cable (not just news) in all dayparts. In Total Day, the network ranks #3, in dayside #2, in M-F prime #4, and M-Su prime #5 in all of cable in 2021.

CNN Original Series and CNN Films had banner years, as well, ranking #1 or #2 in their time periods in either total viewers and/or adults 25-54 this year. CNN had the youngest audience in cable news in Total Day and prime time and reached the largest cumulative TV audience for a record-setting 20 years. CNN is pacing to have the second largest share of the cable news audience in 21 years.

CNN caps off the year, beating MSNBC across all dayparts, including Total Day, prime time, dayside, weekends and on Sunday mornings in the key demographic adults 25-54. CNN will top MSNBC in prime time for the second straight year and in Total Day for the eighth year in the demo 25-54. On weekends, CNN outperforms MSNBC for all 24 hours on both Saturdays and Sundays.

In 4Q-21, CNN surpassed MSNBC once again in Total Day for the 10thconsecutive quarter and in M-Su prime for the 8th consecutive quarter among 25-54. In daytime, CNN was ranked #3 among all of cable (not just news) and was ahead of MSNBC for the 37th consecutive quarter in 25-54.

(Of note: All of cable news dayparts and programs are down double digits vs. 2020 due to heightened viewership during the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential election year a year ago.)

Data is from 12/28/20-12/16/21

Year End Dayparts

• In Total Day (6am-6am), CNN easily beat MSNBC in the key demo adults 25-54 (190k vs. MSNBC’s 129k) in 2021. CNN has now outperformed MSNBC for the 8th consecutive year in the Total Day demo. In total viewers, CNN had its second-best delivery ever (788k), just following 2020.
• CNN outperformed MSNBC in both M-Su and weekday (M-F) prime time in 2021. In M-Su prime (8-11pm), CNN outperformed MSNBC in (280k vs. 225k) and in weekday prime time (318k vs. MSNBC’s 289k) in the key demo. CNN has now topped MSNBC in prime time for the second consecutive year among 25-54. 2021 is CNN’s fourth best prime time delivery on record behind only the Presidential Election years of 2008, 2016 & 2020.
• During Dayside (9am-4pm), CNN outperformed MSNBC for the 25th straight year in the demo (233k vs. 133k). In total viewers, CNN is averaging its third highest delivery on record (989k) just following 2020 and 1995. The network also ranked #2 in all of cable (not just news) in 2021 among both total viewers and the demo in 2021.
• On Weekends, CNN also topped MSNBC in Total Day (6am-6am) in total viewers (656k vs. 484k) and in the demo 25-54 (139k vs. 66k) this year. In weekend prime time, CNN beat MSNBC in total viewers (853k vs. 475k) and adults 25-54 (184k vs. 64k) this year. All of CNN’s Sunday morning public affairs programs topped MSNBC in both total viewers and the demo 25-54 in 2021. CNN beat MSNBC for all 24 hours on Saturdays and Sundays this year.

Year End Weekday Program Ratings

• New Day with John Berman and Brianna Keilar beat MSNBC’s Morning Joe during the 8-9am hour of the program this year among adults 25-54 (153k vs. 144k). Early Start with Christine Romans and Laura Jarrett (5-6am) outperformed MSNBC in the demo (71k vs. 56k) by 27%.
• All CNN dayside programs (9am-4pm) beat MSNBC in the demo 25-54 including CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto (9-11am), At This Hour with Kate Bolduan (11am), Inside Politics with John King (noon), CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera (1pm) and CNN Newsroom with Alisyn Camerota and Victor Blackwell (2-4pm).
• The Lead with Jake Tapper ranked #1 in cable news at 4pm in 2021 averaging 248k in the demo. The Tapper-led program has been the top-rated show in cable news now for the second consecutive year. At 5pm, CNN had a +29% advantage over MSNBC (257k vs. 200k) in the coveted demo adults 25-54.
• The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (6pm) outperformed MSNBC in 2021 in the key demographic adults 25-54 (250k vs. 190k), posting a double-digit advantage (+32%). The Blitzer-led program has now beat MSNBC for the 8th straight year.
• Erin Burnett Outfront (7pm) outperformed MSNBC’s ReidOut this year in the key demo 25-54 (287k vs. 211k), averaging a +36% lead. The Burnett-led program has now surpassed MSNBC for eight consecutive years. This is the show’s second-best delivery on record in total viewers (1.134 million) just following 2020.
• Anderson Cooper 360 (8pm) easily topped All in With Chris Hayes (313k vs. 223k) in 2021, positing an impressive +40% advantage in the key demo 25-54. AC 360 has now outperformed MSNBC for eight of the past nine years in 25-54. 2021 is the Cooper-led program’s second-best ratings delivery in total viewers (1.272 million) after 2020.
• CNN at 9pm averaged 1.360 million in total viewers and 328k in the demo adults 25-54.
• Don Lemon Tonight topped MSNBC at both 10pm and 11pm in 2021. The Lemon-led program beat MSNBC’s Last Word at 10pm in the key demo adults 25-54 (290k vs. 243k) and at 11pm beat The 11th Hour 216k to 212k. DLT has now outperformed MSNBC each hour for the second year in a row.

Year End Weekend Program Ratings

New Day Weekend with Christi Paul and Boris Sanchez surpassed MSNBC in total viewers and/or the demo on Saturdays and Sundays in 2021 during its respective time period. On Saturday mornings, Smerconish outperformed MSNBC in both total viewers (832k vs. 760k) and in the key demo 25-54 (147k vs. 86k) this year. On weekend afternoons/evenings, CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield, CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta and CNN Newsroom with Pamela Brown ranked either #1 or #2 in total viewers and/or the demo 25-54 on Saturdays and Sundays in 2021.

On Sunday mornings, all CNN programs outperformed MSNBC this year in both total viewers and the demo 25-54 including: Inside Politics with Abby Phillip (8am), State of the Union with Jake Tapper/Dana Bash (9am, noon), Fareed Zakaria GPS (10am, 1pm) and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter (11am). Each program also topped MSNBC by double digits in the demo 25-54.

2021 CNN Original Series

In 2021, CNN premiered nine CNN Original Series with each of them ranking #1 or #2 in cable news during their respective time periods in either total viewers and/or in the demo adults 25-54; while also averaging record highs and attracting younger cable news audiences. In 2021, CNN claimed five of the Top 20 non-fiction Historical series in all of cable among adults 25-54. Also this year, three series ranked in the Top 10 of all CNN Original Series on record in total viewers including Tucci (#2), Lincoln (#4) and History of the Sitcom (#7).

The 2021 CNN Original Series include:
• Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy averaged 2.053 million total viewers, 470k among 25-54 and 75k among 18-34, ranking #1 in cable news across all demos.
• Lincoln: Divided We Stand delivered 1.673 million total viewers, 324k among 25-54 and 69k in younger viewers, ranking #1 in cable news in all demos.
• The People v. The Klan averaged 1.180 million total viewers, 238k among 25-54, and 66k among 18-34 ranking #1 in demo, #2 in total viewers.
• The Story of Late Night averaged 1.066 million total viewers, 200k in 25-54 and 47k among 18-34, ranking #1 in the demo, #2 in total viewers.
• United Shades of America averaged 728k in total viewers, 176k among 25-54 and 39k among 18-34, ranking #2 in cable news.
• History of the Sitcom delivered 1.411 million total viewers, 320k in 25-54 and 60k in younger viewers, ranking #1 in cable news in all demos.
• Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury averaged 868k in total viewers, 162k in 25-54 and 35k in 18-34 ranking #2 in total viewers.
• Diana delivered 1.028 million total viewers, 171k in 25-54 and 21k in 18-34 ranking #1 in the key demo, #2 in total viewers.
• This is Life with Lisa Ling averaged 489k in total viewers, 113k in the demo and 19k in younger viewers, outperforming MSNBC by triple digits across demos.

2021 CNN Films/CNN Films Presents/CNN Films Shorts

CNN Films also had a strong ratings year, with each film ranking #1 or #2 in cable news during their respective time periods this year in total viewers and/or the key demos including:
• CNN Films: Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President delivered 1.767 million viewers, 315k among 25-54 and 59k in younger viewers ranking #1 in cable news in all demos.
• CNN Films Shorts: Apollo 11: Quarantine averaged 760k total viewers, 159k in 25-54, and 32k among 18-34, ranking #2 in the demos 25-54, 18-34.
• CNN Films: Race for the Vaccine averaged 595k in total viewers and 165k in the demo ranking #2 in cable news and 35k in younger viewers ranking #1.
• CNN Films: Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street averaged 1.658 million total viewers, 380k in the demo 25-54 and 101k among younger viewers, ranking #1 in cable news in all categories and was CNN Films’ sixth highest film on record in total viewers.
• CNN Films: Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story delivered 658k in total viewers, 117k in 25-54 and 22k in younger viewers, ranking #2 in total viewers and the demo and #1 in younger viewers.
• CNN Films Shorts: 58 Hours: The Baby Jessica Story delivered 532k in total viewers, 100k among 25-54 and 21k in 18-34, ranking #2 in cable news.
• CNN Films Shorts: Super Reviewers: Rate, Review, Repeat averaged 326k in total viewers, 53k in the demo and 13k in younger viewers.
• CNN Films Shorts: The Bunker Room: Better Safe than Sorry averaged 485k in total viewers, 116k among 25-54, and 28k among 18-34, ranking #2 in cable news across all demos.
• CNN Films Shorts: Lessons from the Water: Diving with a Purpose delivered 297k in total viewers, 72k among 25-54 and 21k among 18-34, ranking #2 among 25-54 and younger viewers.
• CNN Films Presents: 9/11 (Updated) averaged 1.148 million total viewers, 222k in demo and 45k in younger viewers, ranking #1 in 25-54 and 18-34.
• CNN Films Presents: LFG delivered 478k in total viewers, 123k among 25-54 and 16k among P18-34 ranking #2 in cable news in the key demo 25-54.
• CNN Films: The Price of Freedom delivered 552k in total viewers, 150k among 25-54 and 29k among 18-34, ranking #2 in total viewers and 25-54, #1 in younger viewers.
• CNN Films: The Lost Sons averaged 945k in total viewers, 169k in the demo and 21k in younger viewers, ranking #2 in cable news in total viewers and the demo.
• CNN Films: Hunt for Planet B delivered 576k among total viewers, 115k in 25-54 and 16k in younger viewers, ranking #2 in cable news.

(Note: Original Series & Films claims based on most recent Live+3 and Live+7 data)

2021 Special Programming

CNN Special Reports (CSR) and Fareed Zakaria Specials, the network’s in-house documentary units focusing on in-depth and investigative reporting of major issues and events, aired nearly 30 long form hours on a vast array of topics in 2021. CSR/FZ Specials averaged 233k across all reports in the demo adults 25-54, ranking #1 in cable news for the year.

Key Breaking News Events:
CNN was either #1 or #2 in cable news during key breaking news events, easily topped MSNBC and/or the broadcast networks:
• The Insurrection on Capitol Hill 1/6/21 was CNN’s most-watched day in the network’s history among total viewers. (5.221 million). In prime time, CNN’s coverage ranked #1 in all of cable in total viewers (8.424 million) and in the demo (3.197 million).
• The Inauguration of Joe Biden 1/20/21 CNN ranked #1 across all of television (not just cable) from 11am-4pm. It was the network’s highest rated Inauguration Day audience on record in CNN’s 40-year history in both total viewers and demos.
• 2nd Trump Impeachment Senate Trial Coverage 2/9/21-2/13/21 Across the five days of the Senate trial, CNN averaged 695k in trial coverage (times vary by day) among 25-54 and 2.983 million among total viewers and ranked #1 in 25-54 outperforming broadcast and cable news and #2 in total viewers (behind only CBS).
• Derek Chauvin Trial 3/29/21-4/15/21 Across the 14 days of the Derek Chauvin trial, CNN averaged 296k in trial coverage (times vary by day) among 25-54 and 1.132 million among total viewers, #1 in the key 24-54 and #2 in total viewers, outperforming MSNBC. CNN was also the most watched during the verdict (4/20/21), ranking #1 in all of cable and broadcast (4:30-6:30pm) in total viewers (4.315 million) and the demo (1.596 million).
• President Biden’s First Address to Congress 4/28/21 Ranked #1 in the demo during the time period delivering 25-54 topping MSNBC, in total viewers CNN drew 3.345 million. CNN also ranked #3 in all of TV (not just cable) in the demo. In all of cable (not just news) the network ranked #2 in total day.
• 9/11: 20 Years Later 9/11/21 CNN attracted 639k total viewers and 149k in the demo during coverage of the 9/11 anniversary (8am-1pm).
• Special Coverage: The California Recall 9/14/21 Delivered 280k among P25-54 and 871k among total viewers, topping MSNBC for the time period (10pm-2am) in the demo.

Town Halls:
• CNN Presidential Town Hall: Joe Biden – Tuesday 2/16/21, 9-10:13pm Delivered 902k among 25-54 and 3.639 million among total viewers, ranking #1 in the time period.
• CNN Town Hall: Afraid: Fear in America’s Communities of Color – Friday 3/26/21, 9-10pm Delivered 185k among 25-54 and 759k among total viewers.
• CNN Town Hall: The Climate Crisis – Friday 4/23/21, 10-11pm Delivered 123k among 25-54 and 496k among total viewers
• CNN Presidential Town Hall with Joe Biden – Wednesday 7/21/21, 8-9:20pm Delivered 343k among 25-54 and 1.563 million among total viewers, topping MSNBC during the time period.
• CNN Presidential Town Hall with Joe Biden – Thursday 10/21/21, 8-9:30pm Delivered 288k among 25-54 and 1.278 million among total viewers, outperforming MSNBC in the demo during the time period.
• The ABCs of Covid Vaccines: A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall– Saturday 11/6/21 8:30-9am Delivered 61k among 25-54 and 300k among total viewers.
• CNN Global Town Hall: Coronavirus: Facts and Fears – Wednesday 12/1/21 9-10pm Delivered 196k among 25-54 and 861k among total viewers.

Some Other Key Programming Specials:
• Anderson Cooper 360 Special: Barack Obama on Fatherhood, Leadership and Legacy – Monday 6/7/21, 8-9pm Delivered 279k among 25-54 and 1.408 million total viewers, ranking #2 in both 25-54 and total viewers for the time period.
• CNN’s Fourth in America Special – Sunday 7/4/21, Ranked #1 across cable news among both total viewser and the demo 25-54 during the full coverage block from 7pm-3am.
• We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert – Saturday 8/21/21 The Pre-show (4-5pm) delivered 125k among 25-54 and 678k among total viewers, ranking #2 in both demos. The Concert (5-7:45pm) averaged 309k among 25-54 and 1.661 million among total viewers, ranking #1 in cable news. The Weather Delay time period (7:45-10:32pm) delivered 268k among 25-54 and 1.242 million among total viewers, ranked #2 in both P25-54 and P2+ for the time period.
• Shine A Light – Saturday 9/11/21 8-9pm Delivered 168k among 25-54 and 711k total viewers, ranking #2 in the demo for the time period.
• CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute 15th Anniversary Gala 2021 – Sunday 12/12/21, 8-10:02pm A program that celebrates individuals who are making extraordinary contributions to help improve the lives of others, ranked #2 in cable news in its time period in both total viewers and the demo.

Median Age
2021TD, CNN’s TV audience is four years younger than Fox and MSNBC in Total Day; four years younger than Fox and five years younger than MSNBC in Mon-Sun Prime; as well as five years younger than Fox and six years younger than MSNBC in Mon-Fri Prime. Fox and MSNBC are all pacing at their oldest yearly median age on record in Total Day.

Cable News TV Reach
CNN continues to reach the largest cumulative TV audience of any cable news network so far this year among both total viewers (56 million) and adults 25-54 (17 million), making this the 20th consecutive year on record for the network.

Multiplatform Reach:
CNN reaches more people in the U.S. than any other news brand across TV and digital among total viewers (175 million), 25-54 (85 million) and 18-34 (41 million).
Note that Comscore Xmedia data is delivered on a delayed schedule and therefore the above reflects Jan-Sep 2021.
Digital to TV Lift:
CNN Digital viewing added a 2% lift (or 17k) to CNN’s P2+ 788k total day TV audience for a total of 805 thousand across platforms in 2021.

Of note: Nielsen Year End Data is from 12/28/20-12/16/21. Nielsen will release final year end data after the New Year and this will updated on CNNPressroom.com

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