The 2020 election and its hardcore battlelines was a boon for TV news, with local TV stations in particular either on par with or outpacing cable and network TV.
In its annual health check of news media, Pew Research Center found the audience for local TV news increase across primetime and late night time slots. Financially, local TV companies generated more revenue in 2020 than in 2019, consistent with a cyclical pattern in which revenue rises in election years and falls in non-election years.
Per the report: In 2020, viewing for network local affiliate news stations (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) increased in two key time slots — evening (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) and late night (11 p.m. to 2 a.m.) — according to Comscore StationView Essentials data. The local TV average audience for those periods both increased by 4% (though the average audience for the morning news time slot (6 a.m. to 9 a.m.) decreased 4% in 2020.
Local TV over-the-air advertising revenue grew 8% last year to $18.4 billion, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center.
Revenue for the 839 local TV stations defined as “news-producing stations” (stations that have a news director and are viable, commercial and are English-language affiliates in the U.S.) was $15.3 billion, according to the BIA Advisory Services database.
The Center also notes that five major publicly held local TV station companies — Gray, Nexstar, Scripps, Sinclair and Tegna — report political advertising revenue separately from other types of revenues in their official filings. In 2020, these companies reported a total of $2 billion in political ad revenue, compared with $1.2 billion in 2018 and $843 million in 2016, the two most recent election years.
The main three cable news channels (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) also fared well with ratings and revenue increases. The prime news time slot on Fox News soared 61% to about 3.08 million compared; CNN’s audience leapt from 1.05 million in 2019 to 1.80 million in 2020, a 72% increase. MSNBC’s audience jumped 28% in 2020.
Total revenue for the three major cable news channels increased a 3%-5% (to $1.7 billion for CNN, $2.9 billion for Fox News and $1.1 billion for MSNBC), according to estimates from Kagan media research group.
Since they spent modestly (CNN’s expenses remained largely unchanged in 2020, Fox News saw its expenses decline 4% and MSNBC expenses increased 3%) they each grew profit roughly 6%-7% from the previous year.
Newsmax, a smaller cable news channel that gained prominence during the election lost $1.5 million despite making $26 million in advertising revenue because in its first year of operation it spent Newsmax spent $28 million on the newsroom.
Network TV news — appointment viewing for many Americans — saw its audience increase somewhat across the three major networks in 2020.
“Average audiences for the network TV Sunday morning political talk shows on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — This Week, Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday and Meet the Press, respectively — benefited from the election season, each increasing by about 20% in 2020,” finds Pew’s survey.
The average audience for the four newsmagazine shows aired by the networks — ABC’s 20/20, CBS’s 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, and NBC’s Dateline — increased for each network about 10% in 2020, following a stable year for CBS and NBC in 2019 and a 21% increase for ABC in 2019.