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Audiences flock to midterms coverage as Fox News tops TV

The 2018 midterm election received wall-to-wall coverage from three of the broadcast networks and the cable news channels.
NBC News anchors and analysts cover the midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018 in New York.
NBC News anchors and analysts cover the midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018 in New York.Nathan Congleton / NBC News

Major media organizations enjoyed a ratings boost on Tuesday night with audiences rarely seen for midterm elections.

The 2018 midterm election received wall-to-wall coverage from three of the broadcast networks and the cable news channels, as well as their digital operations. In 2014, the TV networks dedicated just the 10 p.m. ET hour to covering the vote.

Nielsen estimated late Wednesday that 36.1 million people tuned into national and cable networks to view prime-time midterm election coverage Tuesday.

The figure surpassed the last midterm viewership high of 34,911,000 in 2010, according to Nielsen.

On cable, Fox News topped all TV broadcasts with 7.8 million viewers, followed by CNN with 5.1 million viewers and MSNBC with 4.7 million viewers, according to data from audience measurement firm Nielsen provided by Fox News.

By comparison, MSNBC attracted 1.7 million viewers for the 2014 midterm elections.

In the demographic of people aged 25 to 54 years old, which advertisers pay most attention to, CNN drew 2.5 million viewers, compared to 2.4 million for Fox News and 1.4 million for MSNBC.

On broadcast TV, NBC attracted 5.7 million viewers, ABC reached 5.3 million people and CBS drew 3.9 million people. Those ratings were sharply higher for NBC and ABC compared to 2014 midterm coverage, while CBS declined.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision drew 1.5 million viewers.

In the 25-54 demographic, NBC led broadcast networks with 2.3 million viewers to ABC's 2.0 million and CBS's 1.3 million.

Political events have recently dominated the TV landscape like never before. In September, 20 million people watched Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh testify before a Senate hearing on his nomination.

Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, said the midterms represented one of the few times when the news concentrates on a single, shared story.

"Society in so many ways used to watch the same TV shows and then became totally fragmented," Thompson said. "This is one story we are all following."

Thompson added that even the late-night shows on the broadcast networks touched on the midterms.

"We didn't have a choice," Thompson said. "It was everywhere on all three networks and then into late night."

Chris Ruddy, chief executive of conservative TV channel Newsmax, said events like the midterms were starting to rival major sporting events.

"Politics is becoming like a sport," Ruddy said, noting that his Uber driver in New York on Tuesday night said traffic was light because everybody was watching the elections. "The Super Bowl of elections, 2020, begins today, and we're expecting a really engaged audience for the next two years. Buckle up."

Even as some viewing migrates online, few internet players were willing to share how many viewers livestreamed coverage online. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube declined to share any data on viewership or audience related to the midterms.

The major media companies, however, did release some data showing sizable online audiences. Fox News said its politics coverage received 8.8 million unique visitors and 4.9 million video starts, a metric that measures how many videos are watched.

NBC News Digital reported 20 million video starts.

Fox News had the top video on social media with “Dems retake the house” recording 1.8 million views on Facebook, according to social video analytics company Tubular.