Here Are the Most-Watched Cable Networks of May 2021

By A.J. Katz 

Fox News, MSNBC and CNN have been dominant cable networks (at least when it comes to total audience) in recent months, benefiting from a unprecedented news cycle in 2020 that was highlighted by a presidential election.

Two of the aforementioned three network remained atop the cable heap, but they received some fierce competition from sports.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Fox News remained the most-watched basic cable network in prime time, averaging 2.17 million total prime time viewers in May. The network averaged 2.24 million total prime time viewers in April.


Fox News also managed to maintain its status as the most-watched cable network in the 24-hour daypart (6 a.m.-6 a.m.) averaging 1.19 million total viewers for May. No other cable net to average more than 1 million viewers in total day. The network averaged 1.22 million total day viewers in April.

Relative to the prior month (April), Fox News lost -3% of its average total prime time audience, -6% of its prime time audience from the demo, -3% total day viewers, and -5% of its A25-54 audience across the 24-hour day.

But Fox wasn’t alone in posting month-to-month viewership losses. In fact, CNN’s and MSNBC’s declines were sharper.

MSNBC, still the second-most-watched network on basic cable, saw a -6% dip in total prime time viewers, and a -12% drop among adults 25-54 in prime time from April. The network lost -12% of its total day audience, and -22% in the demo during total day. MSNBC’s April ratings benefited from the network’s live daytime coverage of the Derek Chauvin murder trial. There was no such trial (or significant breaking news event to speak of) in May, and that put a dent in the network’s viewership.

Speaking of networks that rely on breaking news events for ratings, CNN dropped to No. 6 in total prime time viewers after coming in 5th in April, and fourth in total day viewers after a lengthy streak among the top 3.

Compared to the prior month (April 2021), CNN fell by -11% in average total prime time viewers, -21% in the prime time demo this past month. In total day, the network shed -22% in total day viewers, and -28% in the total day demo. Again, not having a major breaking news event to broadcast hurt CNN more than its competition, particularly among younger demos watching in non-prime time dayparts.

Driven by its NBA playoffs coverage, TNT and ESPN finished third and fourth, respectively, in average total prime time viewers. HGTV, CNN, History, Discovery, TBS, and Hallmark Channel round out the top 10 for May in average total prime time audience. Out of that top 10, TNT, ESPN, Discovery were the three who posted month-to-month viewership growth.

Fox News, MSNBC, HGTV, CNN, ESPN, TNT, ID, INSP, Food Network and Discovery round out the top 10 for May in average total day audience. Out of that top 10, TNT, ESPN and INSP were the only ones to post month-to-month growth.

Here’s the full Nielsen cable network ranker, sorted by average total audience:

May 2021 basic cable network ranker (Total Viewers)