For years, Fox News has remained a dominant force in cable news, consistently outdrawing both CNN and MSNBC in viewers. The last quarter was no different, with Fox News remaining the most-watched cable news channel both during the day and in prime time.

But ratings from March point to the strongest challenge to Fox News' ratings dominance in years, thanks to the growing popularity of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

Last month, The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC averaged a total audience of 3.058 million a night, according to Nielsen ratings. It was the second-best ratings month to date for Maddow at the 9 p.m. hour, as she edged past Sean Hannity, who finished in second place with an average of 3 million viewers a night.

Maddow also beat Hannity among viewers 25 to 54, a key advertising demographic, with an average audience of 671,000. Hannity averaged 616,000 viewers in the same demo.

CNN's Anderson Cooper, who is being replaced in the 9 p.m. hour with a new show anchored by current New Day host Chris Cuomo, finished a distant third in both total viewers and the 25-to-54 demographic.

For the quarter, Hannity defeated Maddow in total viewers, 3.196 million to 2.993 million. But Maddow won the quarter among adults 25 to 54, narrowly topping Hannity by about 2,000 viewers, 664,000 to 662,000. Not only was it Maddow's strongest quarter to date, but she also was the only cable news host in her time slot who grew both total viewers (up 34 percent) and adults 25 to 54 (up 26 percent) compared with last year.

Otherwise, Fox News dominated. The network remained the most-watched cable network for both prime time and the total day. And the network's entire prime-time lineup, from Tucker Carlson to Laura Ingraham, each averaged more than 2.1 million total viewers. But despite its continued dominance, Fox News was down in both total day (16 percent) and prime time (13 percent) compared with the first quarter of 2017.

“Fox & Friends” news anchor Jillian Mele waits for her segment to begin as hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade chat during a commercial.
Rob Tornoe / Staff
“Fox & Friends” news anchor Jillian Mele waits for her segment to begin as hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade chat during a commercial.

In the morning, the highly influential Fox & Friends, which President Trump watches regularly, averaged 1.533 million total viewers and 345,000 adults 25 to 54. That easily outpaced MSNBC's Morning Joe, which averaged 1.073 million total viewers and 249,000 adults 25 to 54. But like Maddow, Morning Joe experienced dramatic growth compared with last year, while Fox & Friends actually lost viewers.

While Fox News saw a ratings decline, MSNBC has flourished, finishing the first quarter up a dramatic 20 percent compared with the first quarter of 2017. Not only was it the only cable news network to grow compared with last year, but MSNBC's programming in March also set records in prime-time, daytime, and total day audience. The network now consistently finishes among the top five basic cable networks in terms of total viewers, an achievement that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

Top five cable news shows for the first quarter of 2018 (total viewers):

  1. Hannity (3,196,000)
  2. The Rachel Maddow Show (2,993,000)
  3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (2,908,000)
  4. The Ingraham Angle (2,487,000)
  5. Special Report With Bret Baier (2,361,000)

Top five cable news shows for the first quarter of 2018 (adults 25 to 54):

  1. The Rachel Maddow Show (664,000)
  2. Hannity (662,000)
  3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (586,000)
  4. The Ingraham Angle (505,000)
  5. The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell (492,000)