Inauguration Day 2021 Ratings: CNN Is the No. 1 Network During the Inauguration of Joe Biden

By A.J. Katz 

CNN was the top-rated network on all of television during the Inauguration of Joe Biden, drawing 7.7 million total viewers during the common inauguration coverage period of 11 a.m.-4 p.m. ET. It was also the No. 1 on network on TV during the sweet spot of when President Biden took the presidential oath of office and gave his inaugural address: 11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET.

Here are those Nielsen fast national numbers:

Total Viewers / Adults 25-54 (11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET)

  • CNN: 9,994,000 / 3,509,000
  • ABC: 7,655,000 / 2,415,000
  • NBC: 6,885,000 / 2,343,000
  • MSNBC: 6,528,000 / 1,638,000
  • CBS: 6,068,000 / 1,438,000
  • Fox News: 2,742,000 / 521,000
  • Univision: 1,500,000 / 560,000

According to fast nationals from Nielsen (which will are not final and will be adjusted up at a future time), 41.4 million viewers watched the oath of office and President Biden’s inaugural address across these seven networks — CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, Fox News, and Univision.

That’s up +4% from what those same networks drew on Inauguration Day 2017.

19.3 million of those 41.4 million watched on one of the big 3 cable newsers. That’s up +15% from 2017 (CNN grew +196%, MSNBC +339% and Fox News fell -77%).

On broadcast, ABC grew +10% from 2017 in total viewers, CBS fell -13%, while NBC was -12%.

Telemundo’s and PBS’ numbers will arrive later and we’ll update this post with theirs (and any other network’s Nielsen numbers) once they roll in.

Inauguration Day 2021 was a very different event from previous inauguration days. People were wearing masks on the platform, A-list musicians were performing patriotic anthems, the crowd was small, due to Covid-19 restrictions. And then there was the address itself, which couldn’t have been more different. America United and Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union served as the inaugural theme this year.

Atmosphere (or lack thereof) has impacted the Nielsen ratings for live television events since the onset of the coronavirus. Just ask the networks that broadcast sports.

So, what differences, if any, did the socially-distanced nature of the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have on TV ratings?

Apparently not a negative effect. Not only was there +4% total viewership growth from 2017, but three of the seven networks that are shown above saw audience increases from the most recent inauguration day. In fact, CNN drew its largest inauguration audience ever this year.

Let’s not forget about MSNBC and ABC, however. MSNBC also notched its largest inauguration audience ever as well, and ABC was the No. 1 broadcast network for inauguration day coverage, beating its NBC and CBS competition on inauguration day for the first time since 1993. ABC, like CNN and MSNBC, was also up in viewers from 2017, but unlike the cable news duo, the network was down from 2009. NBC, CBS, Fox News and Univision were all down in viewership from 2017 and 2009.


We’ve already seen viewership for the core time period, but how did viewership look for the total day? Below are figures from the common coverage block (11 a.m. – 4 p.m. ET).

Total Viewers / Adults 25-54

  • CNN: 7,737,000 / 2,710,000
  • ABC: 5,370,000 / 1,599,000
  • MSNBC: 5,326,000 / 1,251,000
  • NBC: 4,714,000 / 1,523,000
  • CBS: 4,133,000 / 987,000
  • Fox News: 2,166,000 / 444,000
  • Univision: 1,300,000 / 494,000

30.7 million watched Inauguration Day 2021 across the seven above-mentioned major news networks. Again, that’s up +4% from what those same networks drew on Inauguration Day 2017 (29.6 million viewers).

15.2 million of those 30.7 million watched on one of the big 3 cable newsers, That’s a +19% change from 2017 (CNN grew +196%, MSNBC grew +287%, Fox News fell -75%).

On the broadcast side, ABC grew +10% from 2017, CBS fell -11% from 2017 while NBC dropped -20%. Univision fell -5%.

Fox News finished last among the English language networks, both in the core oath of office/inaugural address time period, as well as in the full common coverage time period. The network also fell short to Univision among adults 25-54.

However, Fox News still holds a cable news-record for an inauguration day audience by attracting 8.8 million viewers in that same 11 a.m.-4 p.m. ET common coverage period in 2017.

Telemundo, PBS and other networks’ Nielsen ratings for the 11 a.m.-4 p.m. ET time period will be made available later, and this post will be updated once their numbers arrive.


UPDATE: Monday, Jan. 25 2021, 2:45 p.m. ET:  Nielsen has announced that 33.8 million people tuned in to watch the inauguration across 17 Nielsen-measured networks which aired live coverage between approximately 10 a.m. ET to 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 .

Out-of-home viewing as well as connected TV viewing are included in the 2021 total inauguration viewing figures. Contribution coming from CTVs can be as much as 11% for televised political events.


Lastly, here’s how many watched the prime time inaugural celebration special. Fox News cut in and out of the Celebrate America special, mostly sticking with Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity.

Prime time (8:30-10 p.m. ET)

  • CNN: 6,677,000 / 2,371,000
  • MSNBC: 4,413,000 / 1,208,000
  • NBC: 3,863,000 / 1,262,000
  • ABC: 3,658,000 / 1,079,000
  • Fox News: 3,207,000 / 561,000
  • CBS: 3,044,000 / 769,000

CNN finished No. 1 across the board. MSNBC beat sibling NBC in total viewers, but fell short in adults 25-54. NBC does traditionally skew a bit younger than MSNBC.

Interestingly, while ABC beat NBC and CBS during the day, NBC did manage to beat ABC in prime time, both in total viewers and among adults 25-54.