For more than two months, quarantined Americans have been home watching television and getting the latest news on the Covid-19 pandemic. The video images and comments of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx have become familiar to tens of millions of viewers. The ongoing briefings from The White House Coronavirus Task Force and from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders have become appointment viewing for many.
With Americans quarantined and live sports put on hold, news about the pandemic has become an important source of media viewing. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in mid-April, 87% of Americans have been following news on Covid-19 either very closely or fairly closely. A major source for Covid-19 has been national news. Pew reports 56% of Americans cited national news as a major source, with 34% calling it a minor source. Other major sources mentioned were public health organizations and officials (51%), local news (46%), state/local elected officials (36%) and President Trump & the coronavirus task force (31%).
The interest in the pandemic has led to a ratings surge in broadcast newscasts and cable news networks, although “pandemic fatigue” seems to be setting in. Let’s look at the data.
The ratings for the three evening newscasts on broadcast TV (all audiences are based on live + same day) have been on the upswing since mid-March, producing their best ratings in over ten years. Collectively, beginning on March 16 and over the next six weeks (through the week of April 27), the three evening broadcast news programs have been averaging 29.4 million viewers, an increase of 35% from the same six weeks in 2019. On some days, the ratings for some newscasts have been the highest rated program of the day on their respective network (including primetime).
Throughout the pandemic, ABC World News Tonight with David Muir has been the top-rated newscast, averaging just under 12 million viewers. This is an increase of 44% from 2019. Over the same six weeks, the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt has been averaging 10.3 million viewers, a year-over-year increase of 35%. The CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell has averaged 7.1 million over the same weeks, an increase of 23% from 2019. Additionally, PBS NewsHour anchored by Judy Woodruff, has also seen substantial increase in ratings in recent weeks (+33%).
The increase has been across most age groups including the “news demo” of Adults 25-54, which has risen by 49%. NBC is even targeting younger viewers. In April, the network launched an experimental version of its newscast on the pandemic that targets kids and teens and streamed on YouTube.
The increase in broadcast ratings goes beyond the evening news. For example, during the pandemic, TV’s longest running primetime program, 60 Minutes on CBS, has ranked among the Top 5 programs in audience and finishing first during the weeks of April 6, April 20 and May 4. The newsmagazine has been covering a number of pandemic related stories.
The Sunday morning news programs, with their extensive wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic, have also been attracting a larger audience. Over the past six weeks, Face the Nation on CBS has averaged nearly 4.5 million viewers, an increase of 51% over 2019. The March 22 telecast of Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan averaged 5.14 million viewers, the highest audience since 1991. NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd has averaged 4.4 million viewers on Sunday morning, a year-over-year increase of 33%. ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos has averaged 3.7 million viewers, an increase of 36%. Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace has averaged 1.8 million viewers, an increase of 39%.
In the competitive early morning daypart, the audience growth has been far less robust. Since March 16, ABC’s Good Morning America has a slight lead in total audience, averaging 4.3 million viewers, an increase of 8% from 2019. Over the same six weeks, NBC’s The Today Show has been averaging 4.2 million viewers, a year-to-year increase of 7%. CBS Early Morning has been averaging 3.2 million viewers.
The cable news networks, already strong ratings performers, have also seen significant audience growth with their live coverage of the pandemic as well as their ubiquitous political news treatment. In April 2020, the three news networks ranked as three most watched cable networks in primetime and total day. In April during primetime, Fox News, which has been the top-rated cable network for four years, averaged 3.68 million viewers, their best month ever and an increase of 54% from April 2019. MSNBC averaged 2.04 million viewers, an increase of 23% from April 2019. CNN averaged 1.95 million viewers and experienced the largest year-over-year increase (153%).
In total day, Fox News again ranked first, averaging 2.2 million viewers, a year-over-year increase of 65%. It was the news network’s second-best month after its Iraqi War coverage in April 2003. Also, CNN averaged more viewers than MSNBC for the first time in three years. In April, CNN averaged 1.4 million viewers, an increase of 150%. MSNBC averaged 1.3 million viewers, an increase of 40%. Not surprisingly, many regularly scheduled cable news personalities across all three networks had their programs deliver record high audiences for the month, including Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, Chris Cuomo, Bret Baier, Nicolle Wallace and Anderson Cooper.
In the first two weeks of May, with no NBA playoff games on TNT and ESPN, the three news channels continued to be the most watched networks on cable. However, we’re beginning to see possible signs of pandemic fatigue, as the three news channels reported slight audience declines when compared to April. The cable networks continue to combine news on the pandemic with their political coverage in this important election year. In total day, when the first two weeks of May are compared to April, Fox News is -14%, MSNBC is -11% and CNN is -23%. In primetime, Fox News was -2%, MSNBC was -10% and CNN was -21%.
Meanwhile, the ratings for the three evening newscasts have been steadily dropping since peaking when the pandemic first hit. The audience for ABC World News Tonight peaked at 13.7 million viewers for the week of March 30 (its largest audience in 23 years) and has dropped every week since then, averaging (a still strong) 10.1 million the week of May 4, but a decline of 26% nonetheless. The audience of the NBC Nightly News peaked during the week of March 16 with 12.0 million viewers and has declined every week since then, averaging 9.0 million for the week of May 4, a drop of 25%. The average audience delivery for the CBS Evening News has dropped from 7.6 million viewers for the week of March 16 to 6.4 million for the week of May 4, a decline of 16%. Broadcast newscasts in other dayparts such as Sunday morning have also had a decline in viewers as reporting on the pandemic continues.
The Pew Research survey found 71% of Americans say they need to take a pandemic news break from time to time. Furthermore, 43% say, emotionally, the news makes them feel worse. About half of Americans, however, question the truthfulness of pandemic coverage. Studies have found that exposure to bad news such as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing can lead to emotional stress and nightmares. This may have already taken effect on network television news programming along with warmer weather and some states loosening their quarantine restrictions resulting in more people outdoors.
Nonetheless, the ratings for news coverage on the pandemic point out the importance, reliance and familiarity of broadcast and cable news as a source for millions of Americans.