The Most-Watched Basic Cable Networks of Q3 2020 Are …

By A.J. Katz 

News, sports and lifestyle, as is often the case, were the most popular TV viewing genres for the summer of 2020. Defined by wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and police brutality protests, and presidential campaign coverage, it should come as no surprise that the three-most-watched cable networks for Q3 2020 specialize in news: Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.

Lifestyle network HGTV always captures a huge audience, both in prime time and in total day. Lifted by NBA and MLB programming (as well as the start of Monday Night Football), ESPN was the fifth-most-watched cable network in prime time. TNT, which also has NBA Playoffs rights to go with its usual slate of entertainment programming in daytime, swapped spots with ESPN in average total day viewer rankings.

According to live-plus-same-day data from Nielsen, Fox News averaged 3.51 million prime-time viewers in Q3. That is -2% from Q2, but +44% from Q3 2019 and +44% from Q3 2016, the most recent summer directly preceding a presidential election.


Fox lost some adults 25-54 watching in prime time from the prior quarter (-5%), but was +63% versus Q3 2019 and +30% in the demo versus Q3 2016).

MSNBC, No. 2 across cable in total viewers, eclipsed a 2 million prime-time viewer average for a quarter for the first time in network history (2.1 million in Q3). Compared to Q2, MSNBC was +6% in total prime-time viewers, +39% versus Q3 2019 and +73% versus Q3 2016.

In the demo, MSNBC was +3% versus the prior quarter, +43% versus Q3 2019 and +10% versus Q3 2016.

CNN was the third-most-watched cable network for Q3, averaging 1.53 million viewers in prime time. That’s actually -16% from its record-setting Q2, but still +47% from Q3 2019 and +25% from Q3 2016.

Among adults 25-54, CNN saw a noticeable quarter-to-quarter drop off in prime time (-26%). The network was +46% versus Q3 2019, but -2% versus Q3 2016.

The most-watched basic cable networks for Q3 2020 in prime time and total day are shown below:

Q3 2020 Cable Network Ranker (Total Viewers)