New Numbers Reveal What Draws Biggest TV Audiences (Hint: It’s Not ‘Cable News’)

In this continued age of personal media, it’s harder than ever to determine what content actually draws the biggest audiences. As media analysts, we need to study the numbers to get outside our personal bubbles to look objectively at what now qualifies as a “mass audience.”

As is often the case in March, TV ratings paint a picture that, even with all of the advances in technology and a media marketplace that continues to fragment, can’t be found elsewhere. A “big news month” like February 2020, with a Presidential impeachment trial, primary election voting,  the beginnings of a global virus scare, winter storms and other constant news, tells us a lot about what attracts relatively large numbers of viewers.

Let’s look first at Prime Table “cable news,” which consists of opinion and interview shows, not any actual news reporting, and is more and more often watched by viewers other than via traditional cable. So often today when many consumers talk about “The Media” and its foibles, they often mean the nightly scream and graphics fests they see on TV. Is the audience really that big? The numbers tell the story.

Fox News’ Prime Time ratings in February were the network’s highest ever: 3.5 million viewers, on average. By comparison, MSNBC averaged 1.78 million and CNN 1.05 million.

Those are indeed large audiences in today’s environment. They quash just about everything on social media. But remember the dinosaurs of the three channel era on a 6:30 p.m. Eastern time? The nightly network news?

In February, ABC averaged 9.2 million nightly viewers, compared to NBC’s 8 million and CBS’ 5.9 million.

Yes. You’re reading this right. While ad revenue and profitability may tell a different story, the old half-hour news highlights show more than triples the 3-hour talk block, in terms of total audience.

But the real modern mass media story is incomplete if only focused on news. We crunched the numbers of the top-rated Prime Time broadcasts of all types in 2019, based on data from Variety. Of them, 14 of the top 20 were live sports events, mostly football. Three were awards shows.

And speaking of awards shows, according to, which looked at the Gold Standard Academy Awards broadcast, 20 NFL games in the 2019 season drew a larger audience than the 2020 Oscars. In fact, the 4:15 p.m. Sunday NFL “window,” on average, outrated the 2020 Oscars broadcast.

Fox Sports Executive Vice President Mike Mulvihill broke down the 100 most-watched shows of Fall 2019 and found 93 were live sports broadcasts, four were news shows, two were scripted dramas and the other was NBC’s broadcast of the New York Thanksgiving Parade.

Targeted audience efforts mean more than ever in the age in which we now communicate. But to truly understand niche communication, it’s important to also understand what qualifies on the other end of the spectrum. Conventional wisdom gets outdated quickly. Current data, however, can be instructive.