Fox News moved Hannity’s show from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. as part of a broader shakeup of its prime-time line-up, designed in part to counter a dramatic ratings surge by rival MSNBC, led by Maddow, the biggest ratings winner of the Trump era.
In the first week of the head-to-head battle between Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, the conservative heavyweight drew significantly higher ratings than his liberal counterpart.
Hannity pulled out all the stops, bringing in Steve Bannon, Bill O’Reilly, Paul Ryan and Rush Limbaugh to boost his numbers. It appears to have worked: The Fox News pundit pulled in an average of 3,498,000 viewers from Monday through Thursday, with 713,000 in the key adult 25-54 demographic, according to early Nielsen figures.
Maddow averaged 2,649,000 viewers, with 599,000 adults 25-54. CNN’s 9 p.m. hour — which usually features Anderson Cooper’s “AC360,” but this week had two special town halls — finished third, with 1,173,000 viewers and 416,000 in the key demographic.
Representatives from Fox News and MSNBC declined to comment.
Hannity’s big numbers allow Fox News to claim bragging rights and, for the moment, grab back the 9 p.m. crown from MSNBC.
On Tuesday, MSNBC announced that “The Rachel Maddow Show” had finished the third quarter as the top cable news program in total viewers (2.7 million) and adults 25-54 (606,000), according to Nielsen. It was the first time an MSNBC show has claimed that title for a quarter. The show’s Nielsen ratings had shot up 75 percent compared with the same period last year, leading MSNBC to its best ratings quarter ever.
Overall, though, for the 63rd straight quarter, Fox News was still the most watched cable news network, even with a schedule that has been in flux since the departures of Megyn Kelly in January and Bill O’Reilly in April, when he was forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment. Hannity’s move to 9 p.m. cleared the way for a new show for conservative commentator Laura Ingraham at 10 p.m., set to launch Oct. 30.
“The Five,” which had been occupying Fox News’ 9 p.m. slot since O’Reilly’s ouster, finished the third quarter behind Maddow, with 2.3 million viewers and 486,000 adults 25-54, according to Nielsen. It has since returned to its 5 p.m. time slot. CNN’s “AC360” was a distant third, with 1.2 million viewers and 403,000 in the key demographic.
In the third quarter, Hannity averaged 2.5 million viewers at 10 p.m. (533,000 adults 25-54), per Nielsen. The figure trailed Maddow, though the 10 p.m. hour typically has fewer viewers than 9 p.m. So, when Fox News announced that Hannity was moving back to 9, headlines buzzed about a showdown between him and his liberal foil.
Gemma Puglisi, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, said that once a ratings pattern is established, there will be value in the bragging rights. Whoever comes out No. 1 will benefit from added buzz and have an easier time attracting new viewers, predicted Puglisi, who worked many years, partly as a producer, at NBC News, and also had brief stints at both CNN and Fox News.
“I think this kind of battle is fueling people to watch,” she said. “Everybody likes winners.”
According to television analysts, however, it would be a mistake to overreact to Hannity’s good week. Moreover, they say, when it comes to advertising, the rivalry has only limited impact.
“I wouldn’t make a lot out of it,” Joseph Bonner, a senior analyst for communications and technology at Argus Research, said of the ratings. He emphasized that just one week isn’t enough to draw conclusions and noted that Hannity’s high profile guests likely helped goose his ratings. “Certainly bragging rights, but I don’t think MSNBC is going to be canceling Maddow or anything.”
More broadly, the ratings competition between Maddow and Hannity has little impact on advertising, according to Scott Robson, an analyst at research firm Kagan. While it’s fun for the networks to battle head to head, he said, the audiences for Hannity and Maddow are so different that the two shows aren’t directly competing for advertisers.
Just 21 percent of Fox News or MSNBC viewers ever tune into the rival network, according to Kagan’s numbers. “It’s normally a lot higher if you look at any other networks,” Robson said. “There’s not that big of an audience duplication there.”
He added that only five advertisers run commercials on both shows: AARP, AT&T, CenturyLink, Gain detergent and National Car Rental. Both Hannity and Maddow feature their fair share of pharmaceutical and insurance spots, but Robson said advertisers are almost certainly using internal data to cater to each show’s viewer base. Shifts in ratings, he said, were unlikely to cause a drug company to shift its ad for a particular drug from Hannity to Maddow or vice-versa.
Robson added that Hannity was likely aided this week by strong conservative interest in the Republican Senate special election runoff in Alabama. “There’s still many more shows to go and I’m sure that as the news shifts and guests change, we could see the dynamics go back and forth,” he said.
According to Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research, if anyone should be worried, it’s CNN. Given the general growth in the cable news audience, he said, “CNN is significantly underperforming, Fox News is performing roughly in line, and MSNBC is growing dramatically.”
Despite finishing in third, a CNN insider pointed to 23 percent overall growth — and 32 percent in adults 25-54 — in the 9 p.m. hour from a year ago and the substance of the network’s programming, including a town hall this week on NFL player protests.
“This isn’t a zero sum game,” the insider said. “The partisan networks do what they do, while this week CNN had more reporters on the ground covering the humanitarian crises in Puerto Rico and had an incredibly informative and smart town hall.”