Jeff Zucker’s CNN Legacy: A 29% Drop in the Key Demo Audience During His 9 Years in Charge

Fox News has soared in the last decade, while MSNBC has experienced mixed ratings results since Zucker took over CNN in January 2013

jeff zucker cnn
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Jeff Zucker suddenly resigned as CNN president on Wednesday, sending shock waves through the cable news world. Zucker, who took over CNN on Jan. 1, 2013, has been a huge player in that world — but was his tenure good for the cable news channel, ratings-wise? The really short answer: No.

CNN viewership in primetime has fallen 3%, from 659,000 in January 2013 to 636,000 last month. That part’s not so bad!

But the cable news network is currently down 29% in the key news demo of adults ages 25-54, from an average of 199,000 in January 2013 to 141,000 last month in primetime. That is quite bad.

The network’s primetime lineup has been relatively stable in that time, with Anderson Cooper’s “AC 360°” leading off at 8 p.m. ET. Don Lemon replaced Piers Morgan in 2014 in the 9 p.m. hour, and Chris Cuomo took over that time slot in 2017 (with Lemon moving back to 10 p.m.). But Cuomo, who consistently had the network’s top-rated show, was fired last December amid fallout for his role in helping his brother, disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, respond to a wave of sexual misconduct accusations that led to the Democratic politician’s resignation last summer.

CNN is actually up 11% in total-day (6 a.m. to 6 a.m.) viewers, from 443,000 in January 2013 to 493,000 last month. But again, there’s the demo bummer that overshadows those gains: CNN is down 25% among adults 25-54 since 2013 under Zucker’s oversight.

That generally downward movement during Zucker’s nine-year CNN tenure is not the case across the board in cable news. Fox News Channel, the leader in the space, averaged 2.266 million total primetime viewers in January 2022, up 35% from what it averaged in January 2013 (1.674 million). In the key demo, Fox News Channel averaged 342,000 viewers last month, up 23% from 2013 (277,000). In total day, Fox News is up 36% in total viewers (1.422 million now vs. 1.046 million then) and +6% in the key demo (227,000 now vs. 214,000 then).

No matter how you slice it, Fox News has been killing CNN — especially lately. In primetime total viewers, Fox News is currently bringing in a nightly audience 3.5 times larger than CNN’s. The demo difference is nearly 2.5 times, and the (growing) total-day chasms between the two cable news channels are nearly as wide.

Of course, the conservative-leaning Fox News and the liberal-leaning CNN generally appeal to the opposite sides of the proverbial aisle, especially in primetime. So what about MSNBC, which seems to lean even further to the left than CNN?

MSNBC averaged 1.167 million total primetime viewers in January 2022, up 44% from January 2013 (813,000). That’s a great gain — especially on a percentage basis — but it’s being offset exactly in the demo, which is still a key component in selling ad time. Among adults 25-54, MSNBC averaged 132,000 primetime viewers last month, down 44% from 2013 (235,000). In total day, MSNBC is up 35% in total viewers (with a January 2022 average of 661,000 vs. January 2013 488,000) and down a gruesome 52% in the key news demo (down to 75,000 in 2022 from 157,000 in 2013).

With Barack Obama winning reelection in November 2012, there was no new inauguration and thus new administration when Zucker took the reins at CNN. Therefore, we feel January 2013 is reasonably comparable with January 2022 — at least in terms of the political news landscape. The way television is consumed has certainly changed and a great deal of viewership has shifted to streaming and/or delayed viewing, but news programming, like sports, is still primarily consumed on linear TV — and almost entirely live.

In an email sent to staff on Wednesday, Zucker wrote, “As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years. I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today.”

Allison Gollust, who serves as executive vice president and chief marketing officer, acknowledged that she and Zucker have been in a romantic relationship. “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years. Recently, our relationship changed during COVID. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time,” Gollust said in her own statement on Wednesday. She intends to remain at the network.

A trio of CNN executives, Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz, have been tapped to lead the company on an interim basis.