Here’s How CNN Climbed to No. 1 After the Election

By A.J. Katz 

CNN has been on a great run since the election. According to the most up-to-date data from Nielsen, CNN has been the No. 1 network on cable television from the day after the 2020 presidential election (Nov. 4, 2020) through Inauguration Day (Jan. 20, 2021) in total day viewership, averaging 1.7 million total viewers and 485,000 adults 25-54 in the 6 a.m.-6 a.m. daypart.

Relative to the prior three months before the election, CNN is up +57% in total day viewers, and +76% in the total day adults 25-54 demo since the day after the presidential election.

This is quite a sea change from what CNN was hauling the prior 3 months. From August through October 2020, CNN averaged 1.1 million total day viewers, and 275,000 adults 25-54. It was the third-most-watched network on cable news in total day, and the second-ranked cable news network among adults 25-54 during that time span.


Since the 2020 Election through Biden Inauguration (Nov. 4, 2020 – Jan. 20, 2021)

TOTAL DAY ( 6a-6a) CNN MSNBC Fox News
• Total Viewers: 1,726,000 1,530,000 1,441,000
• A25-54: 484,000 269,000 260,000



*Source: Nielsen. Since election (11/4/20-1/20/21).  Prior 3 months: 7/27/20 – 10/25/20. Total Day 6a-6a. Based on P2+ & P25-54 AA (000). Data is most current and complete Live +7 blended with Live+SD.

CNN has also climbed to No. 1 in both total day and prime time among adults 25-54, the age demographic advertisers of TV news prefer, and is No. 1 in dayside hours.

Here’s how CNN looks in dayside since the inauguration in the dayside daypart:

Since the election through the inauguration:

DAYSIDE (9a-4p) CNN MSNBC Fox News
• Total Viewers: 2,135,000 1,669,000 1,524,000
• A25-54: 577,000 289,000 271,000



*Source: Nielsen 2021 to-date (12/28/20-1/20/21).  Dayside 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Based on P2+ & P25-54 AA (000). Data is most current and complete Live +7 blended with Live+SD.

And here’s how CNN stacks up since the election through the inauguration day.

Since the election through inauguration day:

• Total Viewers: 2,535,000 2,471,000 2,800,000
• A25-54: 755,000 450,000 475,000



*Source: Nielsen. 2021 to-date (12/28/20-1/20/21).  Prime time 8-11 p.m. Based on P2+ & P25-54 AA (000). Data is most current and complete Live +7 blended with Live+SD.

In addition to being No. 1 in total day across the board since the election, No. 1 across the board in dayside, and No. 1 among adults 25-54 in prime time (but not No. 1 in total viewers), CNN is also No. 1 in January 2021 to-date, not only in total day, but also in prime time; not only in the 25-54 demo, but also in total viewers.

Compared to the same time period in 2020, which featured Donald Trump‘s first impeachment trial, CNN is +192% in total day viewers and +225% in the demo.

Versus the same time period one year ago, CNN is presently up +154% in total viewers and +180% in the demo. MSNBC is +60% in total viewers, and +89% in the demo. Fox News is down -12% in total viewers and -9% in the demo.

CNN hasn’t accomplished that feat—winning a month in total day viewers, in total prime time viewers, in the total day demo and in the prime time demo—in more than 20 years.

January 2021 to-date:

TOTAL DAY ( 6a-6a) CNN MSNBC Fox News
• Total Viewers: 2,176,000 1,411,000 1,801,000
• A25-54: 617,000 335,000 256,000



*Source: Nielsen. 2021 to-date (12/28/20-1/20/21).  Year ago: 12/30/19-1/22/20. Total Day 6a-6a, Prime time 8-11 p.m. Based on P2+ & P25-54 AA (000). Data is most current and complete Live +7 blended with Live+SD.

January 2021 to-date:

• Total Viewers: 3,154,000 2,614,000 2,850,000
• A25-54: 948,000 562,000 446,000



How did this happen? How did CNN go from third in the ratings to first in January 2021? A scorching hot news cycle happened. The presidential election lasted for longer than anyone expected, and viewers continue to crave updates on the Covid-19 pandemic. CNN has been delivering wall-to-wall anchored news coverage of both events on weekdays and weekends. There’s even a Covid-19 tracker graphic on the side of the screen that frequently updates in case you’ve forgotten how bad it’s gotten.

The domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 also lifted the network’s ratings averages. This was an event which garnered a ton of interest not only among rabid news viewers, but perhaps more importantly, among people who aren’t consistent cable news consumers.  That coverage gave CNN its highest ratings for a single day in the network’s 40-year history (5.2 million average total viewers throughout the day).

Then, there was a presidential inauguration earlier this week, an event during which CNN attracted more viewers than its broadcast and cable network competition.

And if second Trump Senate impeachment trial happens in February, its highly possible that CNN—a breaking news juggernaut that also happens to attract a lot of viewers who loathe the former president—may remain No. 1.

CNN traditionally performs better during hot news cycles and in election years, versus quieter news cycles and non-election years. But what is happening right now, ratings-wise, is truly unique for the network.

“CNN is a trusted source of news at a time when people are searching for truth in a galaxy of misinformation,” CNN U.S. evp of programming Michael Bass told TVNewser. “Facts first has never been more essential than it is right now, in the midst of a devastating pandemic and the wake of an attempted overthrow of the election, and we are very gratified the audience is turning to us in unprecedented numbers on television and online.”

This hot news cycle will cool off at some point in 2021, and one would think CNN’s ratings will come back down to Earth, right? Time will tell. But for now, the network is enjoying the ride.