New York CNN Business  — 

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

I have been covering the cable news wars since 2004, and this is the most dramatic period I have witnessed. So much is up in the air right now. Here’s why:

We’re at an inflection point: The end of the Trump years means an end to the biggest story of the 2010s. The beginning of the Biden years may scramble cable news in ways that remain to be seen.

Audience patterns are changing: Fox News is facing serious competition from the right for the first time. And CNN is notching win after win in the overall ratings.

New leaders are taking charge: MSNBC is about to undergo a transition from Phil Griffin, the channel’s president for the past twelve years, to Rashida Jones.

Streaming pressures are paramount: Live news is bolstering the cable bundle, but for how much longer? Every TV news operation is under pressure to have a streaming video strategy. The Information wrote last week about WarnerMedia’s potential “subscription offering based on content from CNN” that “could launch next year.”

Add it all up, and this is an incredibly dynamic time for the industry.

CNN’s post-election streak

The Fox News winning streak has been snapped. As a series of new promos points out, CNN has been “the most watched cable network” since the day after the election. In the pivotal 25- to 54-year-old demographic, CNN has been No. 1 in cable news for 33 straight days, according to Nielsen data through December 6.

This ratings reset has been driven by interest in the election and the transition. It is partly due to CNN’s strengths in news-gathering, something Fox has never been able to match. (Don’t take my word for it – just look up CNN’s bureaus across the US and around the world, compared to Fox’s meager bureau structure.)

The reset is also due to Fox’s weakness, especially during the day, when some conservative viewers clearly don’t want to watch news. Numerous Fox sources have acknowledged that the daytime ratings drop-offs are a serious concern. Some Trump loyalists, disappointed by the election outcome, have flipped over to Newsmax or One America News; others are probably avoiding the news altogether and watching channels like Hallmark or HGTV instead.

To some degree this ratings phenomenon was predictable in the event of a Trump loss. Fox’s declines may be temporary, just a “blip,” so to speak.

What’s harder to predict is the long-term impact of Fox’s right-wing rivals. Hosts on Newsmax and One America News are acting like the election still isn’t over. They’re acting like Biden is not president-elect. And this is causing some Fox hosts and commentators to disregard their own network’s projection, their own reporting, and indulge crazed conspiracy theories.

MSNBC’s transition of power

Shortly after President-elect Biden’s inauguration in January, Griffin will step aside at MSNBC. Jones will become president of the channel on February 1. She will be the first Black person to run a major cable news network.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Monday, just before Cesar Conde sent out a memo. He said Jones “has an outstanding track-record and she leads with a laser-like focus and grace under pressure. I know she will be an excellent leader for MSNBC.”

Jones has ample experience with daytime, weekend and special events programming. But MSNBC’s highest-rated shows are evening talkers like “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Beat with Ari Melber.” She will be in charge of keeping those shows humming and trying to spread their ratings mojo to other times of day. It is a big challenge: While November was MSNBC’s most-watched month in its 24-year history, owing to the election, the channel still ranked third in cable news behind CNN and Fox News. My impression, as someone who studies the numbers every day, is that MSNBC doesn’t benefit as much from breaking news spikes. Audiences are primed to turn on CNN and Fox at those moments, not MSNBC.

Question marks

– Will the current ratings trends hold? Or will Fox’s audience “come home,” as an exec at the network predicted last month?

– Will CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker stay at WarnerMedia? Brian Steinberg’s story for Variety says that “Zucker is not believed to have made a final decision yet about whether to remain at CNN’s helm or to seek a new role.”

– What other changes will Conde make at NBCUniversal? Conde’s memo said that Griffin approached him about stepping aside, but the WSJ story also cited a “person familiar with the discussions” who “said Mr. Conde was already looking to make a change at the network.”

– Will the Biden era actually be a ratings “bore,” as so many have predicted? When I hear people say that “Trump is good for ratings,” my retort is that “news is good for ratings,” and Trump generated a metric ton of news and scandal and outrage.

– Will Newsmax gain any more ground? Greg Kelly and other Newsmax hosts have come off their immediate post-election highs. The channel’s ratings are still way ahead of Fox Business, though.

– Will Trump strike a deal with a right-wing TV channel and change the competitive landscape?