More than 3 million people tuned into CNN’s town hall featuring former president Donald Trump on Wednesday night. The last time CNN aired a show with those kinds of ratings, Trump was in the White House.
That’s probably not a coincidence.
CNN's controversial town hall with Trump night drew 3.1 million viewers last night, making it the most-watched cable news network of the evening. https://t.co/f3iRmIk3X6
— Axios (@axios) May 11, 2023
Trump dominated the town hall, and CNN has faced backlash, including internally, for allegedly handing him a political gift. CNN has defended its decision in journalistic terms, saying that it has a responsibility to question Trump because he is the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
But there’s a simpler explanation for why CNN gave a platform to Trump after devoting tens of thousands of hours in recent years decrying him as a liar, a bigot, a fascist, and an existential threat to America: Money.
Flashback: Candidate Trump was like a cash-filled pinata for the news media—the more they bashed him, the more money they made. CNN alone was estimated to have raked in over $1 billion the year he was elected. According to an NPR report from late 2016, "CNN will make approximately $100 million in television and digital advertising revenues more than it would expect in the typical election year" because of Trump.
One billion dollars profit? Yes, the campaign has been a gusher for CNN https://t.co/uAdFpVbfNY
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) October 28, 2016
And the networks returned the favor. The media gave candidate Trump an estimated $2 billion in free ads during the 2016 election cycle by covering his rallies and controversies constantly.
After Trump became president, CNN kept whacking away at him on air and won an even bigger audience boost than the rest of the media.
Trump, of course, hit back just as hard, rallying his supporters against the "fake news" network, thereby fueling further hysterical media coverage.
Now: When the Trump presidency ended, so did the media’s ratings fiesta. CNN’s hangover was especially bad, with the network losing half its viewership across certain demographics. The New York Post reported in 2021 that "CNN saw a 34 percent drop—from 1.7 million viewers from Nov. 4 through Jan. 20 to 1.1 million since Biden took office."
But with Trump running for reelection a second time, CNN has in recent months seized the opportunity to get the party started. Like the other two major cable news networks, CNN devoted wall-to-wall coverage to Trump’s April 4 arrest and arraignment in New York City and, as a result, saw the most week-to-week viewership growth of the trio.
According to news reports, CNN invited Trump to do a town hall in a bid to "reset" as a less partisan brand and to attract more conservative viewers.
NEW: Trump told CNN chief Chris Licht backstage before the town hall that he would boost their ratings — to which Licht nodded and said he should 'have fun" per ppl familiar. Behind the scenes look @guardian https://t.co/pMx8vbSoQd
— Hugo Lowell (@hugolowell) May 12, 2023
What’s next: While both the media and Trump have benefited from keeping him in the spotlight, one side has appeared to pay a much bigger price. A YouGov poll released this week, echoing a trove of other survey data, found that CNN is the most polarizing U.S. news source even as trust in the media has reached an all-time low.
Meanwhile, Trump has pulled away from the rest of the 2024 Republican field in recent polling. An ABC News survey released this week showed him beating President Joe Biden by a whopping 7 points in a head-to-head match-up.