Bebeto Matthews / AP
Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015 | 11:52 p.m.
In a year that featured a number of prominent news stories — a presidential campaign upended by Donald Trump, civic unrest in Baltimore, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California — the number of people tuning in to the top 24-hour cable news channels went up, according to Nielsen.
Fox News once again dominated the competition in 2015, while CNN had significantly improved ratings and MSNBC had a slight bounce in viewers.
For the 14th consecutive year, Fox News led in total viewers and in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic crucial to advertisers. The network’s average of 1.1 million viewers in prime time placed it second among all cable channels, the highest finish for a cable news channel ever. (ESPN came in first.)
CNN had strong growth, with a total-day average of 490,000 viewers, representing its highest viewership in six years and a 23 percent bump over last year. In the crucial 25-to-54 demographic it was up 18 percent, and the network also had gains of better than 30 percent in prime time in both total viewers and in the 25-to-54 segment.
MSNBC had a 2 percent increase in average viewers, to a total-day average of 352,000, but it struggled elsewhere. Coming off a rough performance in 2014, the channel lost an additional 19 percent of its viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic in prime time and 18 percent in that demographic in total-day viewers this year.
But toward the end of the year, MSNBC began to shift to a strategy that had been successful for CNN and Fox News throughout the year, with a greater emphasis on breaking news. Over the summer, MSNBC scrapped its left-leaning afternoon lineup and made Brian Williams a breaking-news anchor, after his half-year suspension from NBC News.
For the last couple of years, CNN has made a concerted effort to focus on covering breaking stories, which paid off this year.
“It turns out that if you own a 24-hour cable news channel, the best thing to drive ratings is — wait for it — news,” said Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News. “If in a year like this you didn’t see significant increases in cable news watching, you’d have to conclude the genre had run its course.”
It also certainly helped that the Republican presidential debates, featuring Trump front and center, broke records. In August, when Fox News broadcast the first Republican debate, it drew 24 million viewers, surpassing even the most optimistic expectations and shattering the record for most widely viewed nonsports event in cable history.
CNN had three debates, which also ranked among the highest-rated nonsports cable events ever: two Republican debates with 23 million and 18 million viewers and a Democratic debate with more than 15 million.
The cable news channels, however, still tend to skew older: The median age for CNN viewers this year was 61, while it was 63 for MSNBC and 67 for Fox News.
“What they all would like to have is a somewhat younger audience,” Heyward said. “That remains a difficult challenge. But certainly this extraordinary confluence of news events is enormously beneficial.”
Fox News had an average of 207,000 total-day viewers in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic, compared with CNN’s 149,000 and MSNBC’s 89,000. And even though this is the closest CNN has been to Fox News in that demographic in seven years, Fox still averages more than 1 million more viewers in prime time than CNN, including more than 100,000 viewers better in the 25-to-54 demographic.
“The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News was the No. 1 cable news program for the 14th consecutive year, with an average of 2.8 million viewers, and it finished first in the 25-to-54 demographic for the 15th consecutive year. The second-highest-rated show in both categories also belonged to Fox — “The Kelly File,” hosted by Megyn Kelly.