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Ukraine coverage drives ratings gains for cable news, but broadcast networks draw largest audience

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has lifted all of the cable news networks to higher ratings, with CNN in particular drawing some of the network’s largest audiences in months. On Monday night, 14 CNN programs each delivered a total audience of in excess of one million viewers. CNN’s highest-rated show on Monday was The Lead with Jake Tapper, which had a total audience of 1.4 million viewers—and put The Lead into the top 20 most-watched shows in cable news (in 20th place).

MSNBC did even better, with The Rachel Maddow Show (1.7 million viewers) and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (1.6 million viewers) finishing Monday night in 16th and 19th place overall—and well ahead of their pre-war ratings trends.

Fox News, the longtime cable news ratings king, continued to outperform both CNN and MSNBC, making a clean sweep of the top 15 highest-rated shows on Monday night, with The Five and Tucker Carlson Tonight both drawing a total audience of more than 4 million viewers. And last week, Tucker Carlson Tonight was the most-watched cable news program with an average audience of 4.687 million total viewers, an audience so large it beat NBC’s Saturday Night Live

And yet, despite these ratings gains, none of the most-watched cable news show could come close to the audiences flocking to the legacy broadcast evening newscasts. ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir was the highest-rated show in all of television for the week of February 28, when Russian forces entered Ukraine and began to lead all U.S. newscasts. For the week, World News drew an average total audience of 8.778 million viewers—more than Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Five, combined.

Muir had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Ukraine’s president Monday, in which Muir asked President Volodymyr Zelensky if he considered Vladimir Putin a war criminal. “All people who came to our land, all people who gave the orders,” Zelensky said, “they are all war criminals.”

NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt was the third most-watched show in all of television for the week ending February 28, delivering an average total audience of 7.4 million viewers while also cutting into the gap with ABC.

The CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, often overlooked in the evening news ratings race, is still a powerhouse compared to most of cable news, delivering a total audience of 5.085 million viewers—ahead of Fox News’ most-watched prime time show and well ahead of any programs on CNN, which for decades has excelled at covering major international news stories, but has struggled in recent weeks to outperform Fox News in the midst of the largest war in Europe since the World War II.

And yet, while it at times seem every word spoken by cable news hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are dissected in the moment on social media and the following morning on rival network morning shows like CNN’s New Day and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, it’s the broadcast evening newscasts—those would-be dinosaurs born in the early days of television—quietly drawing far bigger ratings.

Of course, the broadcast networks, while dramatically diminished from the days when Walter Cronkite drew a nightly audience of more than 27 million viewers, still benefit from some of the network infrastructure built through the decades: far higher distribution than cable news—Fox News Channel reaches into 80 million American homes, versus 121 million for broadcasters (making the ratings performance of FNC’s The Five, which airs outside prime time and has in recent months regularly been the highest-rated show in cable television, all the more remarkable). Forbes

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