NEW YORK — The presidential election, pandemic, and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020. To a large degree, 2021 represented the inevitable hangover.
Various metrics illustrate the dwindling popularity of news content, a decline felt acutely at the cable news networks. In 2021, weekday prime-time viewership dropped 38 percent at CNN, 34 percent at Fox News Channel, and 25 percent at MSNBC, according to the Nielsen company.
The drop was less steep but still significant at broadcast television evening newscasts: 12 percent at ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “CBS Evening News,” and 14 percent at NBC’s “Nightly News,” Nielsen said.
For the most part, smart news executives knew the peaks of 2020 were not sustainable.
“It was entirely predictable,” said news media analyst Ken Doctor.
Perhaps that was most obvious at the cable news networks. They built a prime-time model almost entirely focused on political combat during the Trump years, which made it difficult for them to pivot to something different, said Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
“You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the audience you built,” Rosenstiel said.
To a certain extent, these outlets have turned elsewhere for revenue opportunities, Doctor said. CNN is preparing to debut a new streaming service early next year, and recently poached Fox’s Chris Wallace to join that effort.
Fox News, while doubling down on conservative commentary following perceived threats from outlets like Newsmax and OANN, directed fans to its Fox Nation streaming service. Arguably Fox’s most attention-getting programming of the year was a documentary on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by Tucker Carlson that asserted it was an effort to silence Trump supporters.
Both CNN and MSNBC face key programming decisions in the new year. CNN must replace its most popular host, Chris Cuomo, who was fired after it was revealed how he helped his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, through a political scandal. MSNBC must replace Brian Williams in its lineup and will most likely see its most popular personality, Rachel Maddow, cut back on her hours.
Particularly for the national news outlets, Rosenstiel said 2021 may best be remembered as a transitional year away from the frenzied news pace of the Trump years.
He sees the effect of those years in the intensity with which the media has covered every twist and turn of legislative negotiations over President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill. Like most work in Congress, it’s slow-moving and filled with incremental developments.