How cable and broadcast TV news fared in 2015

When 2015 began, it seemed unfathomable by the end of the year that Brian Williams would no longer anchor "NBC Nightly News" or that Donald Trump would be leading in the polls for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

But both circumstances factored into the mixed ratings performance for TV news on cable and the major broadcast networks. Here's how they fared in the ratings over the last year:

Cable news

After a few years of declining or flat ratings the channels have seen a boost from interest in the 2016 presidential campaign, which intensified with the rise of real estate mogul and reality show star Trump. His candid and at times outrageous statements on the campaign trail made him a hot topic and a coveted guest.

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Terrorist attacks abroad and in the U.S. were also driving viewers to their sets.

"Whenever the news strikes at the very core of our safety and security, cable news networks are going to do well," said Jonathan Klein, a veteran TV news executive who ran CNN from 2004 to 2010.

Trump's impact became clear when Fox News Channel's first Republican primary debate on Aug. 6 drew 24 million viewers and became the most watched cable TV event of all time (excluding sports). CNN had the benefit of three debates that were blockbuster ratings events, including the second GOP showdown that attracted 23 million viewers and was the most watched event in its 35-year history.

Fox News maintained its lead as the most-watched news channel for the 14th consecutive year, thanks to a loyal audience that tunes in for its prime time shows with Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity.

According to Nielsen data through Dec. 15, the 21st Century Fox-owned channel will finish second for the year among all ad-supported cable networks with 1.8 million viewers, its highest year-end ranking ever.

In the 25-to-54-year-old demographic favored by advertisers, Fox News Channel was up 15% with 351,000 viewers.

CNN showed even more percentage growth — up 39% with 735,000 viewers in prime time — narrowing the gap with Fox News to its smallest level in seven years. In the 25-to-54 category, the network was up 31% to 245,000 viewers.

While the debates helped, there is a growing perception in the TV news industry that CNN President Jeff Zucker has improved the on-air look of the channel's programs and its marketing efforts (the debates were promoted to viewers as if they were major sporting events) while maintaining a commitment to covering breaking news.

"We've gotten better," Zucker told The Times in a recent interview. "We're more aggressive."

CNN's original series, such as "The Seventies," helped attract younger viewers — the network was up 32% in the 18-to-49 age group in prime time. Zucker said CNN has become a preferred destination for young viewers looking for video news coverage on the Web.

"They are accessing CNN in a huge way online," he said. "We look at this as a multi-platform proposition."

NBCUniversal's MSNBC finished the year with 596,000 viewers, a 1% drop, but declined 18% in the 25-to-54 age group. The network moved its focus away from the progressive point-of-view discussion during the day with a greater emphasis on breaking news and putting it more in direct competition with CNN. That may be tough as CNN has stepped up its investment in news gathering.

"You're talking about reconditioning viewers to have different expectations for MSNBC," said one former NBC News executive. "That becomes a big unanswered question."

Evening news

Brian Williams' false on-air statements regarding his reporting during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to his suspension in February and ultimately cost him his job. While it provided an ongoing drama in the TV news business, it ultimately did not hurt ratings.

During Williams' suspension, then-weekend anchor Lester Holt took over the "NBC Nightly News" chair and the broadcast started to slowly lose ground to "ABC World News Tonight With David Muir."

But NBC rebounded once Holt was named as Williams' permanent replacement in June and the network backed the change with a heavy promotional campaign. "NBC Nightly News" has been the top-rated newscast for all 26 weeks Holt has held the chair. Even with a 4% decrease, NBC's broadcast will finish first in 2015 with 8.6 million viewers and lead among the 25-to-54 age group.

ABC News still considers the anchor transition to Muir, who took over for Diane Sawyer in September 2014, a success. "ABC World News Tonight" is having its best ratings performance since 2008 with 8.3 million viewers, a 4% year-to-year increase. But the ability of NBC to survive one of the worst scandals in the history of network news likely prevented further gains.

"CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley" remained in third place with an average of 7 million viewers, up 4% over the previous year.

All three network news programs were down 4% in the 25-to-54 age group. But there is a silver lining: The desire of viewers to have a nightly curated summary of the news is keeping the programs at an audience level comparable to network prime-time shows.

Morning shows

ABC's "Good Morning America" will finish this year with around 5.06 million viewers, down 7%. Among viewers in the 25-to-54 age group, the program anchored by George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts is off 14% from last year.

NBC's "Today" was down as well — 5% in viewers with 4.6 million and 8% in the 25- to 54-year-olds. But even with the declines, "Today" pulled ahead of "GMA" in the 25-to-54 category, ranking first in the last 16 weeks.

"Today" appears to be back on track after a decline that began with the June 2012 departure of Ann Curry — which damaged the image of co-anchor Matt Lauer. The ratings swoon has slowed, perhaps because the current core team of Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Natalie Morales and Al Roker has remained intact, despite rumored shake-ups and turmoil in the NBC News executive suite.

According to former NBC News executives, "Today" has benefited from no longer trying to replicate the breezier approach to morning news that was working well for "GMA." Some competitors contend that the brighter tone of "GMA" is out of sync with the public's interest in presidential politics and the terrorist threat of ISIS.

ABC News declined to comment on the ratings slide at "GMA." One executive involved with the program who asked to speak anonymously said there are no plans to change the talent lineup in response to the ratings drop.

The network has also shot down rumors that it considered swapping the roles of Stephanopoulos and "World News" anchor Muir — a switch would have been viewed in the TV news industry as a sign of panic.

ABC News executives believe "GMA's" formula of delivering information with more energy and fun is still what its audience expects, even when the news is grim. But they are looking at ways to expand the "GMA" brand and content beyond the two hours it airs in the morning.

A more serious news environment may be helping "CBS This Morning," which devotes more time than the competition to topical interviews and less on entertainment-oriented features.

Notably, it was the only broadcast network morning program to see an audience increase — 11% to 3.4 million viewers overall in 2015. The team of Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King has started seeing gains in the 25-to-54 age group, which was up 4%.

"I think we created viewer expectation that there was going to be news on this program and the anchors presenting it are going to be credible on the news," said CBS News President David Rhodes. "So it's no accident that in a busy news cycle the program is doing well."

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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