For years, Donald Trump has fashioned himself, quite literally, as a “ratings machine,” frequently bragging about his Nielsen prowess even when the facts don’t support it. Becoming president hasn’t changed his Nielsen obsession, even though the ratings for some of his first big ceremonies as president — the inauguration, a Super Bowl interview, his first address to Congress — have failed to set any records and even come up short compared to his predecessor. And yet, even if audiences aren’t flocking to see Trump himself on TV, viewers are very interested in watching shows about Trump. Cable news ratings have surged in the weeks since Trump took office, while late-night shows with a heavy political bent have experienced massive growth during the first full month of the Trump era. While cable news and comedy are up across the board, a few shows and hosts have been doing particularly well. Judging by a combination of Nielsen growth and the more subjective metric known as buzz, here are eight of the biggest beneficiaries of a Trump bump.
Perhaps the most high-profile beneficiary of a Trump bump, Colbert’s CBS Late Show pushed ahead of NBC’s The Tonight Show during the first full week of the new administration — and has been the most-watched show in network late night ever since. It’s a huge development considering Fallon had been beating Colbert consistently, save for Colbert’s very first week on CBS back in September 2015. Late Show has now averaged 3 million same-day viewers for three weeks in a row, with last week’s audience tally jumping an eye-popping 33 percent versus the same period a year ago. It’s worth noting Fallon is still beating Colbert among the young viewers preferred by advertisers. In addition, the absence of The Voice from NBC’s schedule until this week no doubt has hurt Fallon’s numbers. And yet, Colbert still beat Tonight on Monday and Tuesday this week. It seems clear that however the Nielsen battle between Fallon and Colbert shakes out, the rise of Trump has let Colbert reintroduce himself to viewers.
MSNBC’s star anchor first broke out as a progressive media icon during the dark days of the George W. Bush administration, building a fan base via her role then as a host on the ill-rated Air America radio network. So it’s somehow fitting, and not entirely unexpected, that the return of a Republican to the White House is resulting in a renewed surge in popularity for Maddow’s brand of carefully reported, calmly articulated liberal analysis. Per Nielsen, The Rachel Maddow Show attracted its largest audience ever last month, averaging 2.3 million viewers each night — double her viewership versus February 2016. Not only is Maddow’s show easily outdrawing CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the 9 p.m. hour, some installments have generated bigger tune-in than prime-time entertainment shows airing the same night on the broadcast networks.
To be sure, Fox News’s prime-time lineup still consistently dominates the cable news race in overall audience, particularly in the age of Trump. But among younger viewers — adults under 55 — Maddow on some nights last month actually edged out Rupert Murdoch’s Trump-worshiping infotainment network. What’s more, Maddow’s surge has produced something of a halo effect for MSNBC’s evening lineup. All In With Chris Hayes and The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, airing at 8 and 10 p.m. ET, respectively, both also had their best months ever while growing faster than their CNN and Fox News rivals. At 11 p.m., The 11th Hour With Brian Williams* delivered a nightly audience of 1.6 million viewers in February, boosting viewership a massive 169 percent over the reruns the network once aired in the hour. While that’s a long way from the roughly 8 million who used to watch Williams on NBC Nightly News, it’s strong by cable news standards and a nice bit of redemption for the longtime Peacock newsman.
Saturday Night Live
Unless you’ve spent the past few months hidden away in a bomb shelter, you’re surely aware of SNL’s pop-culture ascendancy since Trump’s election. Alec Baldwin’s uncanny impersonation of POTUS has become an instant classic, while guest star Melissa McCarthy’s reimagining of Sean Spicer permanently defined the White House press secretary as a petulant bully/propagandist. The show’s cultural triumph has been more than matched in the ratings. Per NBC, SNL is on track to have its top-rated season among adults under 50 in nearly a decade, with an overall average audience that’s set to top 11 million viewers per episode. That makes SNL more popular than most prime-time broadcast and cable entertainment shows this season. And since Trump’s swearing-in, the numbers have only gotten bigger: The Baldwin-hosted February 11 episode drew more than 16 million viewers (including DVR replays) and averaged a 4.9 rating in the under-50 demo. That last number made SNL more popular with young adults that week than any other series on TV, save NBC’s This Is Us and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Hillary Clinton’s loss may have deprived the world of seeing Kate McKinnon take her HRC impression to another level, but it’s been very good for SNL’s bottom line.
President Trump rarely misses a chance to declare his disdain for CNN, and it’s likely Tapper is one reason why POTUS is so pissed off at the news network. He’s been fearless in his on-camera interrogations of administration officials such as Kellyanne Conway and dogged in reporting on Trump’s many scandals, including his possible ties to Russia. Tapper’s higher profile — including multiple “appearances” on Saturday Night Live — has paid off with near-record ratings for his weekday afternoon show The Lead. In February, the 4 p.m. telecast averaged nearly 1.2 million viewers, surging 60 percent versus a year ago. And in the key news demo on which CNN focuses, The Lead rose an impressive 84 percent and doubled MSNBC’s average in the hour. Tapper’s Sunday morning public-affairs show, State of the Union, also had a strong February, despite the fact that it declined to book some White House–suggested guests. Among adults under 55, the show jumped 71 percent versus last February (when numbers were already inflated by the heated Democratic and Republican presidential primaries).
The caustic and sometimes controversial comic’s Friday night panel show has long been one of HBO’s strongest series performers, but last year’s election drama, followed by the dawn of the Trump era, are pushing Real Time to near-record ratings. Debut telecasts of the show are now pulling in around 1.8 to 1.9 million viewers the night they air — around 40 percent above last year’s audience — while the February 17 episode featuring a visit from (soon-to-be-fired) Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos surged to over 2.1 million. Once replays and streaming views are tallied, HBO says Maher’s show is averaging 5.5 million viewers each week since Trump’s inauguration, up from last season’s already near-record tally of 4.5 million viewers. If these numbers hold up, Maher will end up with his top-rated season since 2003, his first season on the network.
The baby-faced, bowtie-wearing conservative has done shows for both CNN and MSNBC in years past, but it’s taken a prime-time slot on his natural home Fox News — and the election of Donald Trump — to finally turn Carlson into a bona fide TV star. Megyn Kelly’s replacement in the 9 p.m. weeknight slot is regularly pulling in more than 3 million viewers, making him the second-most-watched personality in cable news. (Only his lead-in, Bill O’Reilly, draws a bigger crowd.) As impressive as that number is, it’s mostly a reflection of Carlson’s adjacency to the top-rated O’Reilly. What qualifies Carlson a post-Trump success is the surge in younger viewers he’s brought to the 9 p.m. hour: His show is up 45 percent versus what Kelly did in the same hour last February. What’s more, Carlson is retaining a bigger portion of his O’Reilly lead-in (90 percent versus Kelly’s 85 percent), meaning he’s shaping up to be a better fit sandwiched between O’Reilly and 10 p.m. anchor Sean Hannity.
A year and a half into the job, Noah finally seems to have picked up some Nielsen momentum — and the Trump presidency appears to be a key driver behind his ratings growth. With an average audience of 1.5 million viewers (including DVR replays), February was TDS’s most-watched month under Noah’s watch. While the show’s percentage gains aren’t as dramatic as some other series — it grew 17 percent versus February 2016 — what’s striking is the momentum since Trump’s election. TDS has added viewers in each of the last three months, with particular strength in Comedy Central’s target demo of millennials under 35. (The network says TDS is once again beating the broadcast late-night shows with younger viewers, as Jon Stewart had consistently done for much of his run.) And while Noah still isn’t getting the sort of adoring media coverage some of his rivals regularly receive, there’s evidence his show is picking up steam in other ways: January saw TDS add more followers on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram than during any previous month.
Before Trump was elected, Bee’s weekly TBS show Full Frontal was a massive success in terms of buzz (landing on critics’ year-end lists, numerous viral moments) and a solid performer in linear ratings (a top-five late-night show among millennials). Post-Trump? Those “solid” numbers have become sizzling. During the first six weeks of 2017, Full Frontal has seen its audience among adults under 50 surge by 92 percent versus the same period in 2016, when the show was brand spanking new. Among millennials, Full Frontal is now drawing a bigger audience than any of the broadcast late-night shows, as well as former colleague John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. And once linear and nonlinear platforms are added up, TBS says each episode of Bee’s half-hour series is pulling in 3.4 million viewers each week (with nearly half watching the same night episodes premiere). Now, it’s worth noting that Trump alone isn’t fully responsible for Bee’s more potent Nielsen sting these days. Full Frontal moved to Wednesday nights in January, where it now follows a mini-marathon of The Big Bang Theory reruns. Lead-ins still matter on linear TV, and Bee has benefited from her new proximity to TBBT. But it’s also pretty obvious having a rich target like Trump on which to unload has also played a big part in Full Frontal’s growth.
*An earlier version of this piece misidentified Brian Williams’ show as The Last Word With Brian Williams. It is in fact The 11th Hour With Brian Williams.