CNN’s Prime-Time Ratings Sink to 20-Year Low — and a TV Expert Tries to Explain

May 23, 2012  •  Post A Comment

CNN’s prime-time viewership sank to its lowest number in more than 20 years last week, triggering speculation about what has gone wrong for the onetime cable news leader.

CNN averaged only 395,000 viewers in prime time for the week of May 14, lower than any other week for CNN since September 1991, according to veteran TV observer Bill Carter, writing in The New York Times. Included during the week was a night (Tuesday, May 15) when “Piers Morgan Tonight” — presumably the network’s flagship show — attracted a feeble 39,000 viewers in the target news demo of viewers 25-54, as previously reported.

Carter calls CNN’s numbers "truly bad, deeply bad." And he cites a number of factors. Among them, the network has been hurt by strong May sweeps programming on the broadcast networks, along with an absence of major breaking news, which traditionally has helped CNN boost viewers.

In contrast, CNN benefited a year ago from big news that broke during May — the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

"CNN’s ratings have always been affected by breaking news, but never more so than now, because its competitors at Fox News and MNSBC have much more popular hosts for their prime-time programs. Fox especially has asserted dominance over CNN in the ratings," Carter writes.

He adds: “CNN has seen its competitive position erode for several years without instituting significant changes in its overall approach. The network’s management has kept to its course of emphasizing news coverage and not the views of its prime-time personalities.”

Another factor that may be hurting CNN, Carter writes, is the growth in recording TV programming for later viewing — a trend that could be hitting the other cable news channels too.

Carter writes: “Fox News also had a bit of a struggle that same week, attracting 395,000 viewers in that 25-54 category (notably, the same number that CNN attracted in total audience). That was the lowest total for Fox News since July 2008.”

While the ratings dip is clearly a problem for CNN, it may not be panic time yet at the network, according to Carter. "CNN has not reacted much to bad ratings before,” he writes, “so another week of distressed numbers may not faze its management.”


  1. CNN’s problem is simple to fix. All they have to do is get rid of “personality” programming and go back to reporting hard news. I believe that the CNN networks began hobbling themselves when they replaced Headline News with shows like Nancy Grace. I was an AVID CNN watcher, but now I don’t even consider watching.

  2. Agreed. CNN used to be the go-to source when you wanted to actually learn what was going on. But I kept hitting annoying, vapid and/or ill-informed commentators every time I tuned in (Piers Morgan actually makes me miss Larry King), and eventually stopped clicking on it at all.

  3. Perhaps with the ratings this low they could try something different, like covering the actual news of the world. Surely there are more than 400k people who would give a crap about something other than BranJolena. I really miss the days when you could find folks who were informed about more than one topic. Just sayin’…

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