Welcome to TV World, Where More Viewers Doesn’t Mean More Money

  • Fox News is top audience draw, while ESPN has higher ad sales
  • Marketers still favor sports, youth over age, current events

In the TV business, age and experience are no match for youth and vigor.

Consider the case of two of the most powerful cable networks. This year’s presidential race has helped Fox News become the most-watched U.S. cable network for the first time in its history, with 1.3 million viewers tuning in on average each day this year, according to Nielsen data. That puts it well ahead of Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, previously No. 1, which is widely considered to be the most valuable cable network.

Yet Fox News runs far behind ESPN in advertising sales, according to estimates from SNL Kagan. ESPN, with its focus on live sports and sports news, will take in $2.24 billion in ad revenue this year, more than double Fox’s projected total.

“The primary driver of ESPN’s outperformance is its programming,” said Paul Sweeney, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. “Advertisers covet live sporting events because viewers tend to watch these live, which makes the ad exposure more valuable.” 

The age of the audience is a big factor as well, with Fox viewers almost 22 years older than ESPN’s on average, according to Nielsen data. Advertisers tend to value younger viewers more because they believe they’re less frugal and more willing to try new brands, though some argue older audiences are undervalued.