By Lisa Richwine and Helen Coster
(Reuters) – Fox News Channel’s election coverage led all networks with 14.1 million prime-time viewers on a night it riled President Donald Trump and some of his supporters with an early call from a battleground state for Democrat Joe Biden, ratings data showed.
AT&T Inc’s CNN finished second with 9.4 million from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. EST, followed by Comcast Corp’s MSNBC with 7.6 million, according to the Nielsen ratings agency.
Fox News, the network owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp, and whose commentators often promote Trump’s agenda, stood alone for three hours with its projection that Biden would win Arizona. As of Wednesday, the winner of the presidency remained undecided while vote counts continued.
Fox News was also more than five hours ahead of CNN on projecting Biden would take Virginia, and hours in front on other states. It beat the Associated Press by 90 minutes on saying Trump would win the battleground state of Florida. None of those calls have been disputed.
“Whether they were premature or right on time, the fact of the matter is that they were calling the races in the way races should be called, instead of through the lens that Trump would prefer,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “That’s their job.”
Their approach angered some Trump backers. Jason Miller, a Trump campaign senior adviser, and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey were among those saying Fox News acted too quickly. Fox News correspondent John Roberts said on air that the Trump campaign was “livid.”
As the night unfolded, Fox News’ average audience topped rivals in prime time and into the early morning hours of Wednesday, according to Nielsen data. From 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. EST, Fox News averaged 10.9 million viewers, compared with 7.0 million for CNN. Fox News’ Arizona call came shortly before 11:30 p.m. EST.
Fox News already had irritated Trump and some supporters in recent months.
“The people who are watching @FoxNews, in record numbers (thank you President Trump), are angry. They want an alternative now. So do I!,” Trump tweeted in August.
Overall election night viewership slumped below 2016 when Trump upset Democrat Hillary Clinton. Nielsen figures showed that roughly 56.9 million people watched this year’s prime-time coverage across 21 networks.
In 2016, 71.4 million people watched across 13 networks.
The TV ratings do not include viewership via online platforms, which have jumped in popularity.
Reporting by Lisa Richwine, Helen Coster and Jill Serjeant; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney.