Fox News, at one-sixth the price of ESPN, is the No. 1 cable channel for 2016

Donald Trump and foreign ties
Fox News rode the “populist” wave of support for President-elect Donald Trump, according to Nielsen, enabling it to beat ESPN's viewing numbers.

Signaling a major shake-up among cable programmers, Fox News has displaced a network that cost pay-TV programmers nearly six times as much to license, ESPN, as the No. 1 most-viewed channel for 2016.

The polarizing cable news network rode the “populist” wave of support for President-elect Donald Trump and averaged 2.5 million viewers for the year, according to Nielsen, compared to 1.9 million viewers for ESPN. 

Fox News, which averaged just 300,000 viewers less than the erstwhile World Wide Leader in 2015, saw its viewership spike by 36% in 2016, while ESPN tumbled by 15%. 

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For pay-TV operators, who don’t care where their subscribers are getting important information from as long as they’re engaged in their video service, this presents an interesting economic conundrum.

According to SNL Kagan, ESPN is the most expensive channel to license in the pay-TV ecosystem, with operators paying the Walt Disney Company, on average, $6.10 for every subscriber to license it. 

For its part, 21st Century Fox commands only around $1.03 a subscriber to license Fox News.

The election lifted all boats in cable news, with CNN increasing its viewership by 77% and MSNBC spiking 86%. 

Other struggling channels included AMC, which lost 9% of its audience and dropped out of the top 10 most-viewed networks. USA Network also lost 8% of its audience.