A controversial town hall with former U.S. President Donald Trump earned CNN a rare prime-time ratings boost last Wednesday, but whatever gain CNN enjoyed was short-lived compared to the rest of the week.
This week, data released by Nielsen Media Group showed CNN fell behind conservative upstart Newsmax in overall viewership, with CNN posting consecutive viewership declines in the two days after the Trump town hall.
On Friday, CNN’s overall prime-time ratings averaged 335,000 viewers, about 22,000 households less than what Newsmax earned with competing opinion programming during the same period. Both CNN and Newsmax lagged far behind dominant cable news outlet Fox News Channel, which had 1.4 million viewers during prime-time. MSNBC, which typically places second in the ratings, did so again on Friday with 1.1 million overall viewers.
Just one day prior, CNN logged an average of 538,000 viewers in prime-time, a slight increase from the 478,000 average viewership the network pulled in during the first quarter of the year, but still significantly lower than its prime-time win on Wednesday.
The decline in ratings suggests some of CNN’s core viewers made good on their promise to ditch the network after last Wednesday’s town hall meeting with Trump, which resulted in no real substance or journalism but was viewed by network executives to be a “success” because of the social media chatter that ensued afterward.
The town hall was moderated by Kaitan Collins, CNN’s morning show host who began her career at the conservative-oriented publication The Daily Caller. Executives at CNN praised Collins for holding Trump accountable for making numerous falsehoods during the town hall, a view that wasn’t shared by CNN’s core audience or media pundits online.
One person critical of the network’s coverage is Oliver Darcy, who colored the town hall as “widely criticized” in an issue of the media watchdog newsletter Reliable Sources. Like Collins, Darcy began his career at the Daily Caller, which was founded by former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson.
Semafor, an upstart digital publication, earlier reported that Darcy had “wondered to colleagues whether he should resign or if he will be fired by the network,” but a spokesperson for CNN later told Fox News that Darcy intends to stay on with the network.
The town hall appeared to contradict an early strategy employed by Chris Licht, the president of CNN, shortly after the network’s former parent company WarnerMedia merged with Discovery. Last summer, Licth made several moves that seemed to suggest CNN was moving away from opinion programming toward facts-first journalism in an attempt to attract moderate Americans who wanted news without the noise.
To this effect, Licht ordered CNN producers to ease up on their use of the phrase “breaking news” in on-air presentation, including the network’s graphics, arguing that the term had lost its meaning because it was overused on broadcast and cable news. He also canceled the on-air version of “Reliable Sources,” which led to the departure of Brian Stelter, the program’s host.
Light appears done with that playbook, praising the Trump town hall for making news at other outlets like MSNBC and Axios, and saying the town hall helped the country learn more about the positions and potential future policies of Trump, whatever those might be.
“I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served by what we did last night,” Licht said on a conference call with CNN employees last Thursday. “If one was going to ask tough questions and have that conversation, it damn well better be on CNN.”