The second quarter of 2021 saw viewers ditch CNN and MSNBC in droves as experts wonder if the liberal networks can ever recover from a “serious credibility problem” they created by relying on former President Donald Trump for success while ignoring internal gaffes and scandals. 

“CNN and MSNBC were one-trick ponies, and that trick was bashing Trump,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News. 

“Now that Trump no longer is president, they have tried to keep up the mania, but it’s hard. The audience has disappeared because it never was loyal to CNN and MSNBC hosts, it was loyal to Trump hatred,” Jacobson added. “It’s not hard to imagine executives at CNN and MSNBC saying nightly prayers that Trump runs for president in 2024.”

MSNBC averaged only 847,000 viewers during the second quarter and CNN settled for a dismal 654,000. By comparison, Fox News averaged 1.2 million during the same time period to finish No. 1 in all of basic cable. CNN failed to crack the one-million viewer threshold during the primetime hours of 8-11 p.m. ET, while MSNBC lost to CNN among the key demographic of adults age 25-54. 

Fox News contributor Joe Concha thinks a significant credibility crisis at CNN and MSNBC is going to keep vanishing viewers. 

“Q3 will be even worse in looking at the trends for both networks, if that’s possible. The numbers are where they are because of two things: Their myopic ratings hook, Donald Trump, isn’t around anymore. But more importantly, these networks have a serious credibility problem,” Concha said, noting that left-wing stars from each network have recently generated negative headlines but went unpunished. 

Chris Cuomo
Chris Cuomo had the most-watched show on CNN.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

“When [CNN host] Chris Cuomo, for example, a primetime anchor, provides advice to his brother and his staff on how to beat back multiple allegations of sexual harassment, and the network does nothing in terms of reprimand and even awards him more airtime, that resonates with viewers,” Concha said. 

“When [MSNBC host] Joy Reid refers to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as Uncle Clarence, that’s blatant racism on a national platform,” Concha added. “And when the network does nothing, that also tells viewers – the sane ones – to perhaps look elsewhere.” 

CNN also shocked viewers when it welcomed back chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin after an embarrassing scandal of his own. Concha feels “trust will never be restored,” because “that would require these networks and the egos that occupy them to stop making themselves the story and report more than opine.”

“That ain’t happening,” Concha said. 

Political satirist and radio host Tim Young agreed “there’s no coming back” for CNN and MSNBC. 

Jeffrey Toobin
CNN shocked viewers when it welcomed back Jeffrey Toobin.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

“They based their entire programming lineup on going after the bogeyman they created in Trump, and now that he’s gone, they have nothing to instill the clickbait-like fear from false stories about him to capture their viewers’ attention,” Young told Fox News. 

CNN’s most popular program was “Cuomo Prime Time,” which finished as the No. 22 weekday show on cable news by averaging 1.2 million viewers. While the scandal-plagued Chris Cuomo had the most-watched show on CNN, it finished behind 14 different Fox News shows and eight MSNBC offerings. 

While CNN had a hard time attracting viewers in general, MSNBC had significant issues in the metric that keeps the lights on as viewers from the key demographic of adults age 25-54 tuned out the left-wing network. 

MSNBC averaged only 115,000 viewers among the demo, compared to 204,000 for Fox News and 160,000 for CNN. MSNBC also finished last in the category during primetime, averaging 198,000 demo viewers while Fox News averaged 347,000 and even CNN’s struggling lineup of Anderson Cooper, Cuomo and Don Lemon managed 224,000 demo viewers. 

Multiple MSNBC programs had their worst quarterly performances in years among the critical category. 

clip from the Rachel Maddow Show is played during the the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing
MSNBC averaged 847,000 viewers during the second quarter.
Tom Williams/Pool via AP

“The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” had its lowest-rated quarter in the demo ever, “The Rachel Maddow Show” had its worst demo since the second quarter of 2016, “All In with Chris Hayes” had its worst demo performance since the fourth quarter of 2016, and “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” “Morning Joe” and “MTP Daily” with Chuck Todd all had their smallest audience in the demo since the fourth quarter of 2015. 

DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall feels that logistical and cyclical issues such as cord-cutting and coronavirus exhaustion could have impacted viewership but thinks the problems are largely content based. 

“CNN and MSNBC are particularly aggressive in their progressive approaches to news and only true believers want news solely from an ideological standpoint. There still needs to be some intellectual honesty in the approach to journalism, and audiences are sensing that CNN and MSNBC have become too shrill for measured reporting,” McCall told Fox News. 

“The departure of Trump from office is surely a factor in the ratings declines at CNN and MSNBC, but their problems go beyond that.  There should still be plenty of left-leaning topics to discuss, with or without Trump at center stage,” McCall said. “Even left-leaning audiences might be concerned about inflation, crime surges, legislative inaction, the border crisis, and even the ineffectiveness of the Biden administration.” 

Media Research Center vice president Dan Gainor thinks the “left is embarrassed” and their safe spaces no longer include the once-cozy confines of CNN and MSNBC. 

Donald Trump
Experts wonder if the networks can recover from a “serious credibility problem” they created by relying on former President Donald Trump for success.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

“They own every fiasco,” Gainor said. “The last thing they want to do is be reminded of all of it.” 

The month of June also resulted in a variety of new lows for the liberal networks as they didn’t exactly right the ship at the end of the quarter. It was CNN’s lowest-rated month in both total viewers and the demo since July 2019 and MSNBC lost over half its audience compared to January 2021.

“Don Lemon Tonight” had its worst performance among the demo since October 2015, while “Cuomo Prime Time” had its worst month ever in the category. MSNBC’s “ReidOut” with Joy Reid had its worst month ever among total viewers and CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Brian Stelter had its worst month since Biden took office. 

CNN’s ratings fall has not escaped Trump’s attention, who commented on it during an interview Tuesday on “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show.”

“It’s probably the only good thing about me not being in office,” he said.

All data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research. 

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