2021 Ratings: MSNBC Posts Losses, But Remains 2nd-Most-Watched Network on All of Basic Cable

By A.J. Katz 

MSNBC went on a historic run during the Trump years, growing from a top 30 cable network prior to 2016 to the second-most-watched basic cable network by the end of the administration. The year 2020 was the network’s most-watched year ever, comprised of solid ratings for its wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, social justice uprisings and—of course—a historic presidential election.

One might assume that a network possessing a left-leaning audience would be less likely to watch cable news during a Democratic administration and without an election campaign. And that’s true, as its 2021 Nielsen ratings were down from recent years’ numbers. However, MSNBC, impressively, remained the second-most-watched network on basic cable in 2021. In fact, in 2021, MSNBC marked its fourth consecutive year at No. 2 in primetime and in total day viewing.

In 2021, MSNBC averaged 1.53 million total primetime viewers, 216,000 adults 25-54 in primetime, 905,000 total viewers in the 24-hour daypart and 125,000 adults 25-54 in the 24-hour daypart. That is according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data.


Compared to its final 2020 ratings, MSNBC shed -28% in total prime time viewers (1.53 million vs. 2.13 million), -39% in the prime time demo (216,000 vs. 356,000), -27% in total viewers across the 24-hour day (905,000 vs. 1.24 million) and -38% among adults 25-54 across the 24-hour day (125,000 vs. 201,000).

The fact that there’s a higher percentage of year-over-year growth among adults 25-54 than among total viewers makes sense, considering younger viewers are more likely to tune into cable news during an election year than in an off year. The year 2020 was of course an election year, whereas 2021 was not.

MSNBC continued to average more total viewers than CNN this year, but remains behind its rival when it comes to adults 25-54. MSNBC also finished behind Fox News, both in total viewers and among adults 25-54 for the year.

However, compared to the most recent “off election year,” (2019), MSNBC saw a more significant decline than its competitors. The network was -12% in total prime time viewers, -22% among adults 25-54 in prime time; -8% in total viewers across the 24-hour day, and -18% among adults 25-54 across the 24-hour day.

Below are the final 2021 Nielsen live+same-day numbers (through Dec. 26):

  • Prime Time (Mon-Sun): 1,533,000 Total Viewers / 216,000 A25-54
  • Total Day (Mon-Sun):  905,000 Total Viewers / 125,000 A25-54

Morning Joe averaged more total viewers than its CNN morning competition for the 12th consecutive year and the 6th consecutive year in Adults 25-54.

The fourth-most-watched show on cable news, The Rachel Maddow Show at 9 p.m. more than doubled its CNN timeslot competition in average total viewers. TRMS ranked No. 2 in the hour for the 12th straight year among total viewers and 4th straight year in A25-54. However, it lost average total viewers from 2020 and 2019 but gained roughly 200% from 2017.

The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, which ended last month, averaged more total viewers than its 11 p.m. CNN competition for the 5th straight year (but fell short in A25-54).

Finally, for the 3rd consecutive year, MSNBC (M-Su 6 a.m. -6 a.m.) was the most-watched cable network in African-American viewership. MSNBC averaged 226,000 African-American viewers (ahead of BET, ESPN, CNN and VH1).

Here’s MSNBC press release concerning 2020 ratings (Nielsen data through Dec. 14):

MSNBC Increases Viewership by +160% Since 2015, Adds More Viewers Than Any Other Network
Total Day (M-Su 6am-6am) Ranks #2 Among All Cable Networks for the 4th Year in a Row
Prime (M-F 8pm-11pm) Adds 899K Viewers Over CNN Since 2015, Ranks #2 in Cable for the 4th Consecutive Year
Dayside (M-F 9am-4pm) Up +228% Since 2015 Among Total Viewers, Grows More Than FOX News and CNN in Both Total Viewers and A25-54
“Morning Joe” Ranks #2 Across All of Cable for the 5th Straight Year, Dominates CNN for the 12th Year Straight in Total Viewers and 6th Straight Year in A25-54
“Deadline: White House” Ranks #1 at 4pm, Tops CNN for the 4th Year in a Row Among Total Viewers
“The Rachel Maddow Show” Tops CNN for the 12th Consecutive Year in Total Viewers and 6th Consecutive Year in A25-54
MSNBC Films Reach 11.5 Million Viewers in 2021
MSNBC #1 Cable Network Among African American Viewers for the 3rd Straight Year
MSNBC Digital Has Strongest Year on Record, MSNBC.com Monthly Unique Visitors Increases By Double-Digits in 2021
Viewers Watch MSNBC Full Day (M-Su 6am-2am) for an Average 353 Minutes Per Week, Nearly Doubling CNN
NEW YORK (December 16, 2021) – MSNBC concludes 2021 as the #2 network across all of cable television for four straight years and capping five straight years of dominating CNN in total viewers, according to Nielsen. During a transformative period in the nation’s history including President Biden’s first year in office and a raging pandemic, MSNBC delivered historic wins beginning with the network’s #1 finish among all cable networks in the first quarter. As 2021 comes to a close, MSNBC has achieved significant gains.
Since 2015, MSNBC increased viewership, growing more than CNN and FOX News combined. Total day (M-Su 6am-6am) increased viewership by +160% (vs. CNN’s +60% and FOX News’ +24%),adding nearly 600,000 viewers per minute – the most for any network – propelling MSNBC from #28 in 2015 to #2 across all of cable today. In 2021, total day delivered 926K total viewers (vs. CNN’s 790K), finishing #2 in all of cable (ahead of #3 CNN #4 ESPN and #5 HGTV). In A25-54, total day was up +42% since 2015, growing more than CNN (+26%) and FOX News (+9%) combined. Total day delivered 129K A25-54 viewers in 2021.
Prime (M-F 8pm-11pm) ranked #2 among all cable networks for the 4th straight year (ahead of #3 ESPN, #4 CNN and #5 HGTV). MSNBC’s perspective and analysis programming nearly doubled CNN’s total audience, delivering 2M total viewers (vs. CNN’s 1.2M) and dominating CNN for the 5th year in a row. Since 2015, MSNBC added 1.3M viewers during prime (+189%) more than CNN (+53%) and FOX News (+26%) combined. Among A25-54 viewers, prime grew +100% over 2015 (vs. CNN’s +18% and FOX News’ +7%). Prime averaged 290K A25-54 viewers in 2021. During “Decision 2021” primetime election night coverage (11/2/21), MSNBC ranked #3 among cable networks and averaged +44% more viewers than CNN.
In 2021, MSNBC increased its share during dayside coverage of live and breaking news events, such as the House Select Committee hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection (7/21/21) and the sentencing of Derek Chauvin (6/25/21). Dayside delivered 963K total viewers in 2021 increasing viewership by +228% since 2015 – more than CNN (+84%) and FOX News combined (+16%). In A25-54, dayside averaged 134K viewers – a +163% increase over 2015.
“Morning Joe” (6am-9am) capped its dominance over CNN, beating CNN for 12 straight years in total viewers and six straight years in A25-54. “Morning Joe” also finished #2 across all of cable television for the 5th year in a row (ahead of #3 CNN, #8 HGTV and #10 ESPN). The show averaged 1.03M total viewers (vs. CNN’s 529K) and 139k viewers A25-54 (vs. CNN’s 122K). In total viewers, “Morning Joe” increased viewership by +149% over 2015 (vs. CNN’s +47% and FOX News’ +22%). In A25-54, grew by +49% over 2015, while “FOX and Friends” saw a viewership decline of -8%.
“The Rachel Maddow Show” at 9pm closed out the year with 2.7M total viewers (vs. CNN’s 1.3M), more than doubling CNN’s total viewership. “Maddow” ranked #2 in the hour for the 12th straight year among total viewers and 4th straight year in A25-54. Compared to 2015, “Maddow” increased viewership by +209% total viewers – nearly 10x FOX News’ growth (+23%). In A25-54, “Maddow” increased viewership by +129% (vs. CNN’s +51% and FOX News’ +4%).
The following shows also topped CNN for the year in total viewers: “Way Too Early” at 5am for the 4th straight year; “Stephanie Ruhle Reports” at 9am for the 5th straight year; “José Díaz-Balart Reports/Hallie Jackson Reports” at 10am for the 5th straight year; “Deadline: White House” from 4pm-6pm for the 5th straight year (#1 in the 4pm hour); “The Beat with Ari Melber” at 6pm for the 5th straight year; “The ReidOut” at 7pm for the 12th straight year; “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8pm for the 5th straight year; “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” at 10pm for the 12th straight year; “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” at 11pm for the 5th straight year. On Saturdays, “VELSHI” at 8am topped CNN for the 2nd straight year among total viewers.
In 2021, MSNBC revitalized longform programming under the banner MSNBC Films. In the last four months, MSNBC Films launched a slate of documentaries including: “Civil War,” “Four Seasons Total Documentary,” “In the Dark of the Valley,” and “Paper & Glue.” MSNBC Films documentaries reached 11.5 million viewers in total. During the week that America observed the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11,” a co-production of NBC News Studios and Yard 44, drew more viewers than any other 9/11 documentaries and films on cable television.
For the 3rd consecutive year, MSNBC (M-Su 6am-6am) was the #1 cable network in African-American viewership. MSNBC delivered 226K African-American total viewers (ahead of BET, ESPN, CNN and VH1).
MSNBC Digital had their strongest year on record, with unique visitors up 11% year-to-date vs. the same months last year, seeing increased audiences on platforms such as Apple News. In 2021, MSNBC text drove more monthly page views than any other year on record with new initiatives such as MSNBC Daily and the Reidout Blog. MSNBC video time spent per viewer ranked ahead of CNN.com in November 2021 for the 8th month in a row.
Viewers watched MSNBC full day (M-Su 6am-2am) for an average 353 minutes per week, nearly doubling CNN’s 209 minutes per week.
NOTE: Year-end ratings are based on Nielsen most current data for 12/28/2020-12/14/2021. Individual show data for the month represents regular programming only, excluding specials and breaking news
Reach for MSNBC Films (Memory Box, Civil War, Four Seasons Total Documentary, In the Dark of the Valley, Paper & Glue) based on Nielsen Total Audience (1-minute qualifier), 9/8/21-12/12/21.
Digital Source: Comscore MMX Jan-Nov 2021 vs. Jan – Nov 2020, Base P2+ desktop audience P13+ mobile and Adobe Analytics.