Here Are the Top Cable Networks for Q1 2021

By A.J. Katz 

The first quarter of 2021 was news-heavy, to say the least. There was the horrific insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6; the inauguration of a new president and vice president later that month; a second presidential impeachment trial and eventual acquittal, and continued coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These events drew Americans to the cable news networks, and explain why Fox News, MSNBC and CNN were the three-most-watched cable networks for the opening quarter of 2021.

Fox News finished the first quarter as No. 1 in total prime time viewers, averaging 2.48 million in the Monday-Sunday 8-11 p.m. daypart. The bad news: Fox finished third behind MSNBC and CNN in total day viewership. That’s rare.


The aforementioned MSNBC was the most-watched network on cable television for the quarter in total day viewers (1.37 million on average), marking the first time in network history that it was able to score a No. 1 finish for a quarter in any daypart. That said, the network finished third behind CNN and Fox News when it came to drawing adults 25-54.

CNN, on the other hand, finished the first quarter at No. 3 in total prime time viewers, and No. 2 in total day viewers. However, it beat both Fox News and MSNBC among adults 25-54, and was the top-rated network on cable television in that demo during total day. ESPN, on the other hand, was the top network on cable in the demo during prime time.

Below, the 10-most-watched basic cable networks for Q1 2021, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data.

PRIME TIME (Total Viewers)

  1. Fox News (2,481,000)
  2. MSNBC (2,239,000)
  3. CNN (1,936,000)
  4. ESPN (1,464,000)
  5. HGTV (1,138,000)
  6. TBS (1,068,000)
  7. TNT (1,027,000)
  8. Hallmark (1,013,000)
  9. History (934,000)
  10. Discovery (826,000)

TOTAL DAY (6 a.m.-6 a.m.)

  1. MSNBC (1,367,000)
  2. CNN (1,347,000)
  3. Fox News (1,321,000)
  4. HGTV (666,000)
  5. ESPN (618,000)
  6. Hallmark (560,000)
  7. ID (514,000)
  8. TNT (483,000)
  9. Food Network (481,000)
  10. History (462,000)

Here’s the full Nielsen-measured cable network ranker, sorted by average total viewers:

Q1 2021 Cable Network Ranker (Total Viewers)