MSNBC: Lean Forward ?

Struggling to stay in second place in a ratings war that has already been won by Fox News Channel, MSNBC is unveiling a new, odd, advertising campaign today:

MSNBC, once the also-ran but now the No. 2 cable news channel, has a new tagline that embraces its progressive political identity.

The tagline, “Lean Forward,” will be publicly announced Tuesday, opening a planned two-year advertising campaign intended to raise awareness of the channel among viewers, advertisers and distributors.

The tagline “defines us and defines our competition,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, his implication being that the Fox News Channel, which is No. 1 in cable news and a home for conservatives, is leaning backward. Fox’s best-known tagline is “Fair and Balanced.”

Some of the new MSNBC ads include shots of President Obama on his election night; others, directed by the filmmaker Spike Lee, showcase hosts like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow preparing for their nightly programs; and still others feature quotes like “the future belongs to the fearless.”

The multimillion-dollar campaign is a long time coming for the 14-year-old MSNBC, and particularly for Mr. Griffin, who has complained for years about not having more money to market the channel. With “Lean Forward,” MSNBC is following other cable channels that have found success by building easy-to-identify brands — like Bravo, TBS, HBO or, Mr. Griffin freely acknowledges, Fox News.


MSNBC has been encroaching on CNN for years, and last year it beat that channel among 25- to 54-year-old viewers in prime time. This year, for the first time, it is on track to beat CNN in both prime time and the entire day.

Even so, awareness of MSNBC remains far below that of CNN or Fox, according to the company’s recent research, which found that only 51 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat familiar with the channel. Ninety-five percent said they were familiar with CNN, and 90 percent with Fox. Sixty-four percent said they were familiar with HLN, the sister channel to CNN.

Ms. Otterman’s lesson from that research: “All we have to do is tell our story to more people.”

She added in an interview, “It’s not that the look is changing. It’s not that the programming is changing. It’s that we’re going out and telling people about it now.”

Guys, I don’t think your problem is the fact that people don’t know what’s on, it’s that they don’t want to watch it.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    I don’t normally watch TV news, but I watched Morning Joe this am. I thought it was a good show, but was kind of amazed at the frequency and length of commercial breaks.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I think MSNBC is constrained by it’s ties to NBC from significant branding. Both I believe benefit from sharing and developing talent.

    I watch Morning Joe, but do wonder if the show would survive an Olbermannicure:

    “There’s tension between morning and night at MSNBC. I don’t have an hour to waste for someone just reading Democratic or Republican Party talking points, says Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, who’s positioned himself as a moderate. We’ve created a safe house, he says of his show.

    “I have no comment about him, Olbermann says.”

  3. Tano says:

    “..a ratings war that has already been won…”

    Rating wars are eternal, they are never “won”. Nor are they all that meaningful – making a profit at what you do is the important factor.

  4. Scarborough is sort of the odd man out at that network. From some of the stuff I’ve read, Olbermann has this kind of weird control over the place — there’s a New Yorker article this week that says that he’s demanded of his bosses that no MSNBC employee be allowed to mention him on Twitter, for example — which is odd considering that Rachel Maddow actually has better ratings (and a better show, I think) than he does.

  5. Tano says:

    “Guys, I don’t think your problem is the fact that people don’t know what’s on, it’s that they don’t want to watch it.”

    Your opinion here seems to be directly contradicted by the results of the survey that were discussed. Only 51% of the people were aware of the station, as opposed to 90%+ for the leaders in the field. I don’t quite understand how you can read those numbers and then criticize people for accepting the obvious conclusions that can be drawn from them. Do you have some independent source of evidence telling you that relative awareness of the channels is not a factor?

  6. john personna says:

    “Olbermann has this kind of weird control over the place”


  7. Vast Variety says:

    Unlike Fox, MSNBC at least doesn’t lie about who they are.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I’ve noticed when traveling that it’s not uncommon for MSNBC not to be on the hotel cable. I don’t know if that’s a function of hotels, or at least the ones I stay at, or if MSNBC just isn’t commonly offered in basic cable packages.

  9. I have noticed that in some parts of the country, MSNBC is not part of the basic cable package for some reason……I’ve never quite understood why

  10. Tano says:

    “I have noticed that in some parts of the country, MSNBC is not part of the basic cable packag…”

    So the “people don’t know whats on” argument IS plausible….?

  11. And yet if there were more of a demand for what ever it is that MSNBC does, one would think the cable companies would respond to it.

    Three 24/7/365 news networks is a bit much, I think

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Tano, I’m stuck on the reality that very few people watch cable news to begin with, and I assume those that do, whether they watch MSNBC or not, know it’s there. I’m not convinced that increasing MSNBC awareness in the general public means a lot.

    Googling, I see stories of MSNBC being dropped from lower priced service tiers (at kos and D.U.) . Interesting that MSNBC might be losing market penetration, but still out-performing CNN. I wonder if Doug has the dynamic correct, there is only room for two cable news channels when sports and reality programming are more profitable. Fox is a keeper because of sheer numbers and CNN is a keeper because of tradition. It doesn’t seem like MSNBC wants to grow the pie, they want to take CNN’s piece by labelling it a bunch of old fogies.

  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    ****Unlike Fox, MSNBC at least doesn’t lie about who they are.****lol, they lie about everything,and then some. The whole idiot network is now based on attacking the TEA PARTY,GLENN BECK, AND SARA PALLIN……

    OH and holding communist rallies and having Olberpunk read bedtime stories….lol….

  14. André Kenji says:

    “Three 24/7/365 news networks is a bit much, I think”

    It´s not. In France, for instance, just counting the English news networks, there are four or five networks(BBC World News, CNN International, Al Jazeera English, Sky News, and sometimes Fox News). We are talking about news networks in English in France, for God sake.

    The problem in the US is the opposite of that. MSNBC is more a debate network than a news network, Fox is still a news network run on the cheap, with a very small number of correspondents and such expensive things, CNN is a caricature and a poor version of CNN International, with too much talking.