The Year-End Cable Ranker: News & Sports Stood Out in 2017

By A.J. Katz 

As Nielsen ratings continue to decline for the cable entertainment networks, there’s one genre that thrived in 2017: Cable news.

Fox News once again set the standard. According to Nielsen live+same-day data through December 24, 2017, FNC was the most-watched basic cable network for 2017, not just in prime time, but also in total day. Fox News has achieved this feat back-to-back years for the first time ever.


Prime Time  (Total Viewers) / vs. 2016

  1. Fox News (2,421,000) / Flat
  2. ESPN (1,951,000) / +1 percent
  3. MSNBC (1,631,000) +51 percent
  4. USA (1,412,000) / -5 percent
  5. HGTV (1,403,000) / -5 percent
  6. TBS (1,398,000) / – 7 percent
  7. TNT (1,170,000) / -15 percent
  8. History (1,126,000) / -4 percent
  9. Discovery (1,102,000) / -7 percent
  10. Hallmark Channel (1,089,000) / +7 percent

Compared to 2016, FNC was flat in total prime time viewers, but the network posted total day audience growth (+7 percent).

For all of the controversy swirling around ESPN, the network, which finished No. 2 in prime time viewers, is actually +1 percent in total prime time viewers versus last year. Because this data is only through December 24, and data for the final week of 2017 doesn’t come out until next week, there’s a chance for additional year-over-year audience growth, especially considering many of the top college football bowl games were played this week in prime time. The 2016 Nielsen calendar ended on December 25, meaning prime time ratings for the comparable bowl games were not included in those final figures.

News for ESPN when it came to total day ratings was not quite as positive (though not exactly tragic). The network is down -4 percent from 2016, and it’s extremely doubtful this week’s live+same-day data will put The World Wide Leader in Sports close to flat.

It was a great year for MSNBC. The NBCU-owned news net showed the most growth of any top basic cable network this year. The network’s coverage of the Trump administration is the primary reason for that. After finishing No. 10 in prime time last year, MSNBC finished No. 3 this year, posting +51 percent total viewer growth in the process. The network was No. 14 in total day last year, but No. 3 in total day this year, posting +47 percent audience growth in the process.

CNN, a top 10 network in prime time last year, fell to No. 11 in 2017 without any significant live, political events to cover in prime time. However, the network did manage to post year-over-year audience growth in total day, and scored a top 10 finish in the daypart.

Total Day  (Total Viewers) / vs. 2016

  1. Fox News (1,500,000) / +7 percent
  2. Nickelodeon (1,118,000) / -7 percent
  3. MSNBC (889,000) / +47 percent
  4. HGTV (802,000) / -6 percent
  5. CNN (779,000) / +3 percent
  6. ESPN(779,000) / -4 percent
  7. Investigation Discovery (742,000) / +8 percent
  8. USA (698,000) / -13 percent
  9. Cartoon Network (671,000) / -19 percent
  10. TNT (636,000) / -19 percent

Then there are the cable entertainment networks.

Because we’re using live+same-day data here, seeing year-over-year total audience declines for the cable entertainment networks shouldn’t be a surprise considering people are DVRing and watching their favorite shows on other platforms more and more frequently each year. ID, which has become a destination network among women 25-54 on weekday afternoons, appears to be bucking the trend.

This trend is even more pronounced among the younger-skewing networks. This is why you’re not even seeing Adult Swim in the Total Day Top 10 among total viewers this year. Nickelodeon, and other kids networks (find in the pdf below) posted a TV audience drop off as well.

In addition to ID, Hallmark Channel delivered year-over-year prime time audience growth. Its holiday movies were apparently more popular than usual this year. Perhaps they represented a much-needed escape from the crazy news cycle in 2017.

2017 Cable Ranker (Data through Dec. 24)