On May 10, CNN CEO Chris Licht turned over his network to Donald Trump. He filled an auditorium in New Hampshire with hand-selected Trump supporters. He instructed them to cheer for their man, and not to express any disapproval. He purposely stranded host Kaitlan Collins in a position where she had no means of preventing Trump from bullying her, speaking over her questions, or simply bypassing her to stir his crowd into a frenzy. Trump loved it so much that he stuck around well after the cameras stopped rolling, bantering with the adoring crowd. Thanks to CNN, Trump had a very good night.
Licht thought it was a good night for CNN as well. The event pulled in over 3 million viewers, allowing CNN to momentarily top Fox as the most-viewed cable news channel. Better still, in Licht’s view: CNN “Made a LOT of news,” he wrote to his staff the morning after the event. “And that is our job." Oddly enough, many people still believe that the job of a news network is to report the news, not create it.
Now the numbers are in one week after the broadcast, and as The Daily Beast reports, Licht’s effort to turn CNN into a right-wing news engine resulted in exactly the sort of disaster anyone might have predicted: bringing CNN its lowest ratings in eight years, sinking to less than half the viewers of MSNBC, and even falling below radical-right outlet Newsmax.
Overall, Nielsen ratings for CNN were down by double digits, as were the network’s key demographic of viewers between 25 and 54 when compared to the week before the Trump stunt. Average daily viewers fell to 429,000 compared to 976,000 at MSNBC.
That number for MSNBC represents a 44% gain since Licht was put in place by Warner CEO David Zaslav. Licht has been very good for MSNBC.
Both Licht and Zaslav have expressed a desire to move CNN to the right, supposedly in a bid to restore credibility to the network. Zaslav rushed to Licht’s defense following the town hall event and cited a poll showing that before the event, trust in CNN’s content had increased. What he failed to point out was that reported trust in CNN had gone up much less than trust in any other news network. And again, those numbers were from before Licht’s stunt.
Efforts to turn CNN into the other Fox were already eroding the network’s position relative to both CNN and actual Fox. Now that Licht has demonstrated the lengths to which he’ll go in an effort to give Trump and his supporters the floor, that slow bleed of viewers has become a rush for the doors.
Perhaps the most shocking way of looking at CNN’s current ratings is that the primetime shows featuring both Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace fell below not just Fox and MSNBC, but turned in lower numbers for the hour than radical-right Newsmax. Newsmax isn’t even featured on many of the largest cable providers, including DirectTV, and it still managed to beat CNN.
If the goal of Zaslav and Licht was to get viewers to watch more TV from the fringes of the hard right, they seem to have achieved it … only viewers aren’t watching it on CNN.
Ratings at Newsmax have been boosted by a big drop at the mothership of right-wing punditry, Fox News. With the ouster of Tucker Carlson, Fox’s numbers have fallen by 24% overall. That still puts them well ahead of MSNBC, but their decline is real, as is the bleed of their most radical viewers to Newsmax and the even more removed from reality OAN.
Still, it can be argued that Fox took a necessary hit for the long-term good of the company. Not only was Carlson’s hate-filled nonsense repulsive to advertisers, the information that came out during the Dominion trial made it clear that he was using his position as the network’s top draw to justify moving to positions that exposed the network to lawsuits like the one settled with the voting machine manufacturer. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch can’t have relished the idea of having his dirty laundry aired each time Carlson’s lies generated a fresh trip to the courthouse, and while the $787.5 million settlement represented a relatively small part of Fox’s revenues, Murdoch likely didn’t relish signing more such checks.
Getting rid of Carlson might even be a first step toward positioning Fox News as the kind of conservative news outlet it pretended to be, even as it followed (and frequently led) the Republican Party into a cesspool of fearmongering, racism, and bigoted delusions. A redemption arc for Fox might be the most unlikely of events … but it seems possible.
Meanwhile, Licht and Zaslav appear to have doubled down on their desire to push CNN into a space where every radical right fantasy must be entertained and given at least the same weight as reality. It’s a strategy that is genuinely making CNN the least trusted name in news.
But Licht probably has a solution to everything in mind … as soon as he can get Tucker Carlson on the phone.
Jennifer Fernandez Ancona from Way to Win joins Markos and Kerry to talk about the new messaging the Democratic Party’s national candidates are employing going into 2024. Ancona was right about the messaging needed to win the midterms, and we think she’s right about 2024.