Q3 ’21 Ratings: MSNBC Remains Second-Most-Watched Cable Network, But Delivers Lowest Rating in A25-54 Demo Since ’15

By A.J. Katz 

During the third quarter of 2021, MSNBC finished No. 2 across all of basic cable in average total prime time viewers (1.27 million) and No. 2 in average total day viewers (738,000). According to live-plus-same-day data from Nielsen, the network also averaged 161,000 adults 25-54 in primetime, and 94,000 adults 25-54 in total day in Q3. The 94,000 adults 25-54 average is the network’s smallest in the total day daypart since 2015.

While MSNBC’s standing as one of cable’s most-watched networks remains impressive, its Nielsen ratings in 2021 are trending in a poor direction, especially when it comes to younger viewers. Compared to the most recent quarter (Q2 ’21), MSNBC shed -13% in average total day viewers and -18% in the total day demo.  The network also struggled in primetime, -13% in total prime-time viewers, and -19% in the prime-time demo from Q2 of this year.

Compared to Q3 2020, a quarter, which—to be fair—featured seismic global news events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, racial justice protests and a presidential election campaign, MSNBC fell by -39% of its average total day audience, lost nearly half of of its audience in the total day demo (-48%), dropped by -40% in total prime time viewers and shed half of its audience in the prime time demo (-51%). Primetime is a crucial daypart, where TV networks set premium advertising rates.


Finally, compared to the same quarter four years ago (Q3 2017), MSNBC dropped -28% of its total prime time audience, -22% of its average total day audience, more than half of its prime time demo audience (-58%), and -56% of its audience from the total day demo. Fueled by anger at the Trump administration, The Rachel Maddow Show finished Q3 ’17 as the No. 1-rated program on cable news, marking the first time any MSNBC show had ever ranked No. 1 in the genre. That wasn’t the case in Q3 ’21, as we’ll show below.

In addition to the decline in average total viewers, we’ll likely continue to see a sharp drop off in A25-54 viewers as younger Americans increasingly cut the cable cord and search for other ways to consume the news; ways that are yet to be measured by Nielsen. It doesn’t help that many progressives/left-leaning media consumers who traditionally prefer MSNBC are less interested in following the news 24/7 during a Democratic administration than they were during the Trump resistance era.

MSNBC isn’t alone in its ratings issues. CNN and Fox News are also down from 2020 (although Fox saw ratings growth from second quarter, due in part to coverage of Afghanistan).

Here are MSNBC’s ratings for Q3 of 2021:

  • Prime time (Mon-Sun): 1,267,000 total viewers / 161,000 A25-54
  • Total day (Mon-Sun): 738,000 total viewers / 83,000 A25-54

Programming highlights for MSNBC include The Rachel Maddow Show being No. 5 on cable news in total viewers, and No.8 on cable news among adults 25-54 this past quarter. TRMS ranked No. 4 in total viewers and No. 5 among adults 25-54 in Q2. Despite that drop-off, TRMS doubled CNN in total viewers and beat CNN in the key A25-54 demo. MSNBC swept CNN across every key daypart in average total viewers for the 3rd quarter.

It is worth keeping in mind, however, that outside of The Rachel Maddow Show and Morning Joe, MSNBC fell short to CNN in Q3 when it came to drawing the ad-friendly A25-54 demo (Mondays-Sundays time period).

Below is MSNBC’s Q3 2021 ratings press release, where the network stresses those victories over CNN:

MSNBC Total Day (M-Su 6am-6am), Dayside (M-F 9am-4pm) and Prime (M-F 8pm-11pm) Top CNN, Finishing #2 Among All Cable Networks in Total Viewers
“Morning Joe” is #2 Across All of Cable for the 2nd Quarter in a Row, Dominates CNN for the 26th Straight Quarter Among Total Viewers, 18th Straight Quarter in A25-54
“The Rachel Maddow Show” Tops CNN for the 48th Quarter in a Row Among Total Viewers, 5th Quarter in a Row Among A25-54
“Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11” Leads 9/11 Documentaries and Films on Cable in September
MSNBC.com Monthly Unique Visitors Up +18% this Year
MSNBC Full Day (M-Su 6am-2am) Tops All Cable Networks in African American Viewership for the Quarter
Viewers Watch MSNBC Full Day (M-Su 6am-2am) for an Average of 321 Minutes Per Week, Nearly Doubling CNN (182 minutes)
NEW YORK (September 28, 2021) – MSNBC swept CNN across every key daypart among total viewers for the 3rd quarter of 2021, according to Nielsen. During a quarter dominated by the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the continued spread of Covid-19, the fight for voting rights and more, MSNBC’s unmatched coverage and analysis propelled the network to #2 across all of cable television.
In 3Q21, MSNBC increased the A25-54 advantage over CNN during primetime (M-F 8pm-11pm). In A25-54, prime drew 210K viewers (vs. CNN’s 205K) beating CNN for the 2nd straight quarter. Among total viewers, prime averaged 1.7M viewers (vs. CNN’s 885K) finishing #2 across all of cable for the 2nd consecutive quarter (ahead of #3 HGTV, #4 ESPN and #8 CNN) (MSNBC ranked #1 in 1Q21). Prime ranked #2 in cable news for the 22nd consecutive quarter.
Total day (M-Su 6am-6am) ranked #2 among all cable networks for the 2nd straight quarter, ahead of #3 HGTV, #4 CNN and #5 ESPN (MSNBC ranked #1 in 1Q21). This is also the 3rd straight quarter that total day topped CNN. Total day averaged 747K total viewers (vs. CNN’s 604K) and 95K A25-54 viewers.
Dayside (9am-4pm) ranked #2 among all cable networks for the 3rd quarter in a row (ahead of #3 CNN, #4 HGTV and #8 ESPN). In total viewers, dayside averaged 753K (vs. CNN’s 746K) and 94K A25-54 viewers. MSNBC’s coverage of the House Select Committee hearing on the January 6th attack (7/27/21) delivered the network’s best dayside ratings since February, averaging 1.3M viewers (+78% vs. 3Q21 average) and ranking #1 in cable news.
“Morning Joe” from 6am-9am finished #2 across cable television for the 2nd straight quarter (“Morning Joe” ranked #1 in 1Q21). In total viewers, “Morning Joe” drew 860K viewers (vs. CNN’s 445K), dominating CNN for the 26th straight quarter. In A25-54, “Morning Joe” drew 106K viewers (vs. CNN’s 90K) topping CNN for the 18th straight quarter. The day after the Select Committee hearing (7/28/21), “Morning Joe” had its highest-rated show of the quarter (+20% vs. 3Q21 average). “Morning Joe” ranks #1 across all of cable television among African American viewership (188K), ahead of FOX News (20K) and CNN (122K).
“The Rachel Maddow Show” at 9pm continues to dominate CNN, ranking #2 in the hour for the 2nd consecutive quarter (“Maddow” ranked #1 in 1Q21) and topping CNN for the 48th consecutive quarter among total viewers. “Maddow” doubled CNN in total viewers, averaging 2.3M (vs. CNN’s 950K). In A25-54, “Maddow” ranked #2 in the hour for the 2nd consecutive quarter with 299K viewers and topped CNN (212K) for the 5th consecutive quarter.
The following shows topped CNN for the quarter in total viewers: “Way Too Early” at 5am for the 16th straight quarter; “Stephanie Ruhle Reports’’ at 9am for the 19th straight quarter; “Hallie Jackson Reports/MSNBC Reports” at 10am for the 18th straight quarter; “MTP Daily” at 1pm for the 2nd straight quarter; “Deadline: White House” from 4pm-6pm for the 17th straight quarter; “The Beat with Ari Melber” at 6pm for the 17th straight quarter; “The ReidOut” at 7pm for the 5th straight quarter; “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8pm for the 19th straight quarter; “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” at 10pm for the 25th straight quarter and “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” at 11pm for the 20th straight quarter. On Saturdays, “VELSHI” from 8am-10am topped CNN for the 2nd straight quarter among total viewers.
During the week that America observed the 20th anniversary of 9/11, MSNBC Films and Peacock presented Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, a co-production of NBC News Studios and Yard 44. Memory Box premiered on MSNBC and streamed exclusively on Peacock on 9/8/21, drawing more viewers than any other 9/11 documentaries and films on cable television. The MSNBC premiere outperformed its time period average by +33% among A25-54, while Peacock’s “The Choice from MSNBC” produced a 16-fold increase in video views and an 18-fold increase in minutes viewed.
From January to August, MSNBC monthly unique visitors are up +18% versus the same time period in 2020. MSNBC viewers are also averaging more time spent per viewer throughout 2021 than competitors such as CNN.com & FoxNews.com.
Across all of cable networks, MSNBC was the #1 network in African American viewership (ahead of #2 CNN and #49 FOX News) for the quarter in full day (M-Su 6am-2am) through 9/23/2021.
Viewers watched MSNBC full day (M-Su 6am-2am) for an average 321 minutes per week, nearly doubling CNN’s 182 minutes per week.
NOTE: 3Q2021 ratings are based on Nielsen most current data day for 6/28/2021-9/26/2021. Individual show data for the month represents regular programming only, excluding specials and breaking news.
Memory Box had the highest P2+ average audience of any 9/11 documentary or film premiere telecast on cable TV in September 2021.
Source: Comscore Multiplatform Media & Video Metrix, January – August 2021.