The rise of Donald Trump has made strange things happen. One of the strangest is the revival of CNN. The cable news network has spent years losing to its flashier, more partisan competitor, Fox News. Two years ago, it posted what Mediate described as its “lowest prime-time total viewer ratings ever,” and counted itself lucky when it was able to beat the perpetually weak MSNBC. Now it’s catching and even beating Fox, and it may have two unpopular people to thank: the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, and Jeff Zucker, a TV executive who used to be best known for his disastrous years running NBC.
In April, CNN boasted that it had beaten Fox News five times in the previous eight months among adults aged 25-54; it hasn’t won that often since 2001. After the White House Correspondents’ dinner at the beginning of May, Deadline reported that CNN had won its third consecutive week in that demographic—something it had accomplished “just three times in the past 15 years.” In most of those years, Fox crushed CNN by providing a conservative alternative to what its viewers saw as liberal media bias, and by capitalizing on the mood of the post-9/11 world.
So why are things different in the era of Trump? It helps that CNN may have a structural advantage when it comes to a story this big. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the network has been built around reporting. Fox’s model depends more on punditry and interviews, with stars like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity commenting on the news. “CNN tends to see a bigger percentage lift in the ratings when big news breaks,” explains Variety TV reporter Rick Kissell, and in the era of Trump, that favours CNN: “Both networks have benefited from big ratings for debates, but CNN has been more aggressive in having town hall discussions with the candidates of both parties, and that has helped boost their ratings.”
Fox has another problem because of this campaign: partisan coverage doesn’t work when partisans hate each other. With Republicans divided, Fox gets accusations of bias from both sides. One of its stars, Megyn Kelly, had Trump calling her “crazy” for criticizing him at a debate. She reconciled with him for a prime-time special in May, where she instead lobbed him softballs like, “When did you realize you could be president?” According to Fortune, the interview “fizzled both in terms of content and ratings.”
That could be partly because Trump admirers don’t trust Fox, and Trump skeptics hate the way it has begun to embrace him. Joe Cunningham at the conservative site Redstate, a leading outlet for anti-Trump Republicans, wrote that Fox “has given Donald Trump the level of positive coverage that money could never (legally) buy, and as a result, they’ve dropped in the ratings.” But Trump supporters may be just as likely to abandon the network because it doesn’t like him enough.
These fights have made a strength out of CNN’s reputation as a channel without a clear point of view. It also made Jeff Zucker’s programming strategy look good. Zucker told the Wall Street Journal that since he took over in 2013, he has tried to play up the idea that CNN is neither left nor right: “We have added many more middle-of-the-road conservative voices.” In his post attacking Fox, Cunningham praised CNN for allowing all sides to be heard from: “CNN is still not perfect, and I don’t expect it to conform to my political views, but I find it much more tolerable.”
This uptick might not last. Despite CNN’s success in April, Adweek’s A.J. Katz wrote that “Fox News still dominated the top of the charts” when it came to talk shows: CNN has no personalities as popular as Kelly or O’Reilly. Kissell says Zucker is trying to compensate for this by supplementing election coverage “with documentaries, including one about Steve Jobs that did well, and series like The Eighties that have helped keep viewership up on nights when there’s not big political news.” But the CNN resurgence still depends mostly on a story as big as Trump. After the election, when news gets slower, CNN may find itself hoping for a new disaster to get it back in competition again.