The new prime time for TV news: afternoons

There is a new prime time in television news: the afternoons.

The biggest draw on Fox News isn’t Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity; it’s “The Five,” the 5 p.m. chat show that, excluding live sports and the hit drama “Yellowstone,” was the most-watched show last year on the cable TV set.

In January, Ari Melber’s 6 p.m. legal affairs show outperformed everything else on MSNBC – the first time in 27 years the network has seen a show outside the 8 p.m. prime time window. p.m. to 11 p.m. take home the honors. On CNN, Erin Burnett at 7 p.m. and Jake Tapper at 4 p.m. drew larger audiences than the once unrivaled evening lineup.

Cable networks broadcasting 24 hours a day have long been obsessed with the prime-time cult, when megawatt personalities like Keith Olbermann, Megyn Kelly and Rachel Maddow garnered loyal fans. The presenters’ careers culminated when they landed a show at those most-watched and lucrative times of the day.

Now, like almost everything else in the TV news business, that is changing. Instead of hitting CNN at 8 p.m. for the latest news on the presidency or the pandemic, viewers dive in before dinner, then walk away. Mr. Melber and Nicolle Wallace, who hosts a 16-hour show, have grown their audience over the past year, even as the ratings for most prime-time news shows have grown. diminished or stagnated.

The reasons are innumerable. Without the visceral urgency of a dangerous virus — or a sitting president tweeting erratically late into the night — American news obsessives may just feel more comfortable switching channels the evening rather than waiting impatiently for the latest developments. At the same time, primetime stars like Ms. Maddow have left their usual timeslots.

“The greatest show on earth, the Trump administration, is over for now,” said Mosheh Oinounou, a former executive producer of “CBS Evening News.” “It’s no different from traditional TV – the plot is less interesting and some characters have left the show.”

Cable news also faces its toughest competitor to date: streaming.

Americans over the age of 65 make up the core audience of 24/7 news channels, but these older viewers are increasingly turning to streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime for their entertainment. According to Nielsen, Americans over the age of 65 watched nearly twice as many hours of streaming TV in December 2022 as they did in December 2020 — the biggest increase among any age group during that time.

“Unless there’s something super compelling happening in the world, primetime viewers now have so many other streaming options to watch,” said Jonathan Klein, former CNN president and co- founder of Hang, a sports streaming platform. “There are so many more choices than before. You can watch ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ online. It’s hard for news to compete with Maverick.

For network leaders, the trends have blurred some long-held assumptions.

For one, prime-time hosts don’t have to be the ubiquitous cultural figures they once were — and salaries can be scaled back accordingly. And the evening does not necessarily have to be reserved for the review of the day’s news. Producers can experiment with documentaries and other non-fiction shows that can appeal to a wider audience.

Typically, primetime viewers tune in by appointment, expecting to see a familiar face discussing the day’s news. But CNN said last month it would fill its empty 9 p.m. slot with a mix of one-off specials and occasional cameos by unorthodox hosts like former basketball star Charles Barkley.

The network’s new president, Chris Licht, has touted the strategy as bringing “new and unique perspectives to the news,” but it’s also an acknowledgment that the appetite for evening news has waned.

CNN’s 9 p.m. ratings plummeted after Chris Cuomo, once the network’s top-rated anchor, was fired in 2021. Last fall, Mr. Licht tried to revive the 9 p.m. slot by temporarily moving Mr. Tap 4 p.m. After just six weeks, and dismal ratings, Mr Tapper returned to afternoons, where his show, “The Lead”, now regularly draws more viewers than CNN’s evening programs.

At MSNBC, the long-running 9 p.m. program “The Rachel Maddow Show” was so popular in the Trump years that it briefly elevated MSNBC’s prime-time viewership above that of Fox News – the king of cable news audiences – in the key 25-to-54 age demographic.

But MSNBC agreed last year that Ms Maddow could reduce her hosting duties to just once a week on Mondays. Her Tuesday-Friday replacement, political analyst Alex Wagner, beat CNN in total viewership, but her 2023 ratings are about 30% lower than Ms Maddow’s in the first quarter of last year.

January’s ratings may have been hurt by breaking stories that unfolded during the day, including the battle for House Speakership, the Alex Murdaugh murder trial and the drama around a Chinese spy balloon. Yet in February, Mr. Melber and Mr. Tapper remained virtually tied for the highest-rated shows on their networks, a sign of perseverance.

These trends are coming amid a broader decline in the overall cable news viewership. In 2022, MSNBC’s primetime viewership was down 21% from the previous year, and CNN was down 33%.

Fox News is an exception; its prime-time viewership fell just 2% from 2021 to 2022. And its afternoon showcase, “The Five,” is particularly notable.

Fueled by friendly exchanges between co-hosts like Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld, “The Five” passed Mr. Carlson last year to reach Fox News’ largest average viewership, a major change on a network where the hours of prime time were still queens. (Mr. Carlson still outperforms “The Five” among adults under 50, the key demographic for advertisers.)

Even the family that controls Fox are aware that casual observers may not be fully aware of the afternoon show’s success. “People will be surprised, but the number one news show in America is ‘The Five,'” Lachlan Murdoch, chief executive of Fox Corporation, told an investor conference last week. “It’s a big, energetic show, a panel that has opinions from all sides of politics.”

“The Five” also incubated two of the network’s rising stars. Fox News tapped Mr. Gutfeld to lead a new 23-hour comedy show that turned into a big hit. The show far outperforms its current affairs-focused competitors on CNN and MSNBC and consistently attracts more viewers than comedy mainstays like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.

“The Five” isn’t the only afternoon show on Fox News that’s doing well relative to its internal competition. In February, Mr. Watters’ 7 p.m. show drew more viewers than Mr. Hannity at 9 and Laura Ingraham at 10. Bret Baier’s “Special Report” at 6 p.m. also drew more viewers than Mrs. Ingraham.

In some ways, the return to afternoons and early evenings is a throwback to the traditional dinner network newscasts that for generations summarized the news for a mass audience at 6:30 p.m.

Today, the 6:30 am newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC consistently rank among the highest-rated programs across all of broadcast and cable television. ABC’s “World News Tonight,” hosted by David Muir, was the most-watched non-sports program on television in 31 of the 52 weeks last year.

Mr. Oinounou, the former CBS producer who now runs Mo News, an independent media outlet distributed on Instagram and other digital platforms, noted that a combined audience of around 20 million people still watches these traditional newscasts. He said cable news was simply catching up with an old trend.

“That’s what we’ve been seeing for years,” Mr. Oinounou said with a laugh. “People are looking for a news digest as they’re about to eat dinner, and then we’ll send you to more traditional entertainment – written by TV writers rather than politicians in Washington.”


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