President Obama and the Former Struggles of Cable News Ratings


On November 4, 2008, Senator Barack Obama was projected to become President Barack Obama. He won several states that Democrats did not carry in 2004, but would go on to become solid Democrat states. In fact, he received over double the electoral votes as his opponent. In 2012, he won re-election in a smaller landslide, but a landslide nonetheless. In the 2016 election, businessman and former star of The Apprentice Donald Trump scored a solid victory in the electoral college due to narrow wins in a group of large states, and lost the popular vote with approximately 46% of the vote. 

Despite the landslide wins, President Obama did not drive viewers to cable news in the way President Trump did. During Obama’s presidency, there were articles released by major media outlets sounding the alarm on cable ratings. Upper management changes were made as the networks tried to find a way forward. Prime time anchors came and went. CNN’s Larry King Live was hitting ratings lows and went off the air in 2010 after 25 years. At times, MSNBC found nothing to air at 10 pm except a rerun of a show that aired just two hours earlier. 

Of the eight shows that aired from 8 to 11 pm on FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN at the beginning of President Obama’s tenure in office, only four made it out alive. Given how most successful prime time cable news shows air for a long time, this is not a success story. 

Let’s take a graphical look at the average prime time ratings for FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN through Obama’s presidency. First is a graph of total viewers:

When viewing these numbers, keep in mind that 2016 was an election year full of coverage of Trump’s campaign. It is a stretch to assume ratings rose due to a newfound interest in President Obama’s happenings. 

Prime time cable news viewership was down across the board in 2015 from 2009. MSNBC and CNN never averaged above one million viewers yearly in that time period. Such ratings are unthinkable now. CNN will typically do between 1.5 and 2.5 million viewers, while MSNBC is more consistently in the two million range. In other words, CNN and MSNBC in 2020 are doing similar to what FOX News did during Obama’s presidency. FOX News, meanwhile, has risen by millions in nightly viewers during Trump’s Presidency. 

But it’s not total viewers that matter to advertisers. It’s viewers between the ages of 25 to 54. Let’s take a look at how the networks did there:

Also not great. FOX News, in particular, saw an ugly drop from 2010 to 2013, and no network was up in 2015 from their ratings in 2009. Meanwhile, in 2016, MSNBC and FOX News were gaining back some of the viewers they lost, while CNN saw a huge boost in A25-54 viewership. As a reminder, there is very little to suggest a boost in 2016 would be due to President Obama. 

An overarching pattern in these two graphs is that every year, FOX News is ahead. The network, which airs conservative opinion shows at night, was critical of President Obama throughout both of his terms. They made a scandal out of anything Obama did, whether it was policy-related or because of the color of his suit at a press conference. The numbers don’t lie—this narrative resonated with viewers not only in the most important demo, but also overall. 

The following chart combines the data in the two graphs above, largely in an effort to show the true scope of FOX News’ lead (and again, how much lower cable news ratings used to be):

Why were the ratings so much lower under Obama’s presidency than they were under Trump’s presidency? The most logical answer is how much more visible Trump was than Obama. 

Some prime time hosts could make an entire monologue out of Trump’s Twitter activity that day. He gave cable news hosts plenty of material, whether it was hating on an opponent at a rally to crowd laughter, or holding a press conference. The latter oftentimes start serious and end with him expressing discontent with certain reporters, including those reporting for the cable news channels. 

President Obama, meanwhile, presented himself as calm and charismatic in his public appearances, which happened much less often than Trump’s appearances. Trump’s name-calling and self-praise on Twitter certainly is newsworthy; less so were Obama’s generic announcements. Obama and Trump took completely different approaches to their public appearances.

It’s up to you to decide if President Obama or President Trump took a better approach to their pubic appearances, as well as who was better at the job. But it is undeniable that President Obama simply did not give cable news channels the gift that President Trump did. 

Share this

Related Posts

Next Post »