A relatively subdued election night on Tuesday yielded relatively subdued ratings: The overall television audience was 25.4 million viewers, the smallest total for a midterm year since 2014, according to Nielsen.
The viewership was roughly one-third of the audience that tuned in on Nov. 6, 2018, to watch the Democrats take control of the House.
But the data revealed some intriguing shifts in where today’s TV viewers get their news.
MSNBC, which featured viewer favorites like Steve Kornacki and Rachel Maddow, was seen by 3.2 million people, a bigger prime-time audience than CNN — and its first-ever victory over CNN on any midterm or presidential election night.
CNN usually draws big numbers for a major political event. But in its first year since 2004 without Wolf Blitzer at the helm, CNN, which is undergoing a rocky leadership transition, dropped to second-to-last among the big news networks, with 2.6 million viewers. CBS had the smallest overall audience of the big networks.
Fox News, as expected, was dominant: The channel was seen by 7.4 million Americans, more than twice as many prime-time viewers as its nearest rival, NBC. (While election coverage often runs for hours, the industry relies on 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern time as a key benchmark.)
In a silver lining for CNN, the network virtually tied with NBC for second-place among 25- to 54-year-old viewers, the demographic that matters most to advertisers. CNN beat MSNBC in that demographic, as well.
More and more Americans have eschewed traditional TV for streaming services and online media outlets, though ratings for political TV news spiked during the Trump administration.
Nielsen said that 65 percent of Tuesday’s television audience consisted of viewers age 55 and older.
ABC finished first in total viewers on Tuesday among the Big Three broadcast networks, all of which pre-empted their entire prime-time entertainment blocks to cover vote returns. NBC beat ABC and CBS in the 25-54 age demographic.