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MSNBC, riding anti-Trump wave, was the top cable network last week

Basking in the soaring viewership, Comcast-owned MSNBC beat Fox News and every other cable network last week. Can it sustain the audience?

Rachel Maddow leads the prime-time lineup at MSNBC, which was the No. 1 cable network in prime time for the first time in its history last week.
Rachel Maddow leads the prime-time lineup at MSNBC, which was the No. 1 cable network in prime time for the first time in its history last week.Read moreNathan Congleton/MSNBC

Comcast-owned MSNBC seized the mantle last week as the No. 1 cable network for the first time in its 21-year history as millions of Americans are tuning in to cable news for a Trump fix.

Conservative-leaning Fox News on Tuesday confirmed that MSNBC beat it in overall audience during weekdays in prime time last week, the most coveted time on TV for selling ads. But Fox News, which has been the consistent cable audience leader for years, said it was beating the left-leaning MSNBC in other TV metrics for the full week, month and year. Fox News has been plagued for months by the Bill O'Reilly sexual-harassment scandal, the departure of Fox News founder Roger Ailes under a similar cloud, and host Megyn Kelly's defection, among other issues.

MSNBC — whose prime-time personalities include Rachel Maddow and Philadelphia native Chris Matthews — also beat all entertainment and sports channels in audience in prime time last Monday through Friday.

"The political insanity of the moment is attracting eyeballs," Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, said on Tuesday. "Everyone has an opinion on what's going on."

"Fox was so powerful for so long and with such dominant personalities that MSNBC was viewed as the lovable loser of cable news," Hanley added. "Now MSNBC has to show it can sustain this as the situation in Washington unfolds."

According to Nielsen figures, MSNBC had a prime-time audience of 2.34 million viewers last week, 85,000 more than Fox News. MSNBC's top-rated personality is host Rachel Maddow at 9 p.m., who is averaging 2.7 million viewers this month and beating CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and Fox  News' The Five in the same time slot.

The No. 3 cable channel last week was Disney, with an audience of 1.7 million viewers during prime time. The No. 4 cable network was Comcast-owned USA, with 1.57 million viewers.

Steve Kraycik, director of student television at Pennsylvania State University and former news director at local TV affiliates, said that MSNBC is "riding some of this anti-Trump sentiment."

But Kraycik noted that this is "only one week, and summer viewing habits can be off. I would be interested if this continues into the fall." He was surprised that CNN's ratings had not benefited more from its public feuding with Trump. CNN had an audience of 1.1 million last week, less than half of MSNBC and Fox News.

For years, MSNBC has clawed to stay relevant in a three-way cable news rating battle with CNN and Fox News. In early 2015, MSNBC was drawing a slim 629,000 viewers a night in prime time while Fox News was dominating with 2.1 million viewers.

MSNBC revamped its daytime schedule about 18 months ago, replacing opinion shows with straight news. This challenged CNN and built an audience for the night, said Mark Kornblau, senior vice president for the NBCUniversal News Group.

The perception was that "CNN is a utility in breaking news for consumers," Kornblau said. Beating CNN in news "was close to unthinkable 18 months ago." MSNBC says it could beat CNN during daytime viewing — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — this month, a first daytime win since October 2012.

"It was great," Kornblau said of last week's win. "But since January and February we have been pulling some incredible numbers."