For months ahead of the 2020 presidential election, reports stated that due to mail-in ballots, Americans likely wouldn’t know who the next president would be on Election Night. While days later, we still don’t know who the final winner is, it seems as though with Election Night ratings down 20% from 2016, many might not have even checked news coverage just in case a winner was announced.
With a record voter turnout, and former vice president, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, earning more votes ever cast for a presidential nominee, this was clearly an election that engaged many Americans. Yet according to Nielsen measurements for the night across 21 different networks, Election Night coverage received a total of 56.9 million viewers. As of right now, about 140 million ballots have been counted, which means only about 40% of voters watched Election Night coverage.
By comparison, the 2016 Election Night, which pitted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton against Republican nominee Donald Trump, received 71.4 million viewers. While it’s not clear what caused this lower number of viewers, despite the relatively high voter turnout, it seems likely that the lack of expected results, and quite possibly, election burnout, might have contributed to the lower ratings.
As Variety points out, these Election Night ratings included 21 different networks. In addition to the four primary broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC), three major cable news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC), two business-focused offshoots (CNBC and Fox Business), and a handful of Spanish-language networks (Estrella, Telemundo and Univision). In addition to these networks, BET, BET Her, CNNe, NBCLX, Newsman, Newsy, PBS, VICE and WGNA also had their own Election Night coverage. This also doesn’t include networks like Showtime, which featured Steven Colbert’s Election Night 2020 special.
Even though overall Election Night ratings were down, that wasn’t the case for the night’s rating winner, Fox News. The right-leaning network set the record for most-watched Election Night coverage in cable news history, according to Deadline. Fox News’ primetime coverage took first place, averaging around 13.7 million viewers, with CNN in second at 9.1 million. Third was MSNBC with 7.3 million, followed by ABC in fourth with 6.1 million, and NBC in fifth with 5.6 million.
In 2016, NBC received the highest Election Night ratings with 12.1 million viewers, while Fox News followed close behind with 11.5 million. This is also the first time since 2008’s Election Night that ABC was the most-watched of the broadcast networks.
According to Vulture, ABC, NBC and CBS all lost significant audiences for their Election Night coverage, compared to their Election Night ratings in 2016. While Fox News and MSNBC did much better numbers than 2016, showing an increase in viewership for cable news networks on Election Night, CNN was the only major cable news network to actually lose viewers compared to 2016.
Also considering how Election Night results have continued throughout the week, it’s unclear if Election Night ratings have held over the days since. Certainly, viewership probably hasn’t hit the highs of Tuesday night, but it’s unclear if Fox News has maintained its dominance over the nightly news cycle throughout the week.