Sinking MSNBC to Shuffle Lineup Yet Again
MSNBC's attempt to be the liberal Fox News isn't working.
MSNBC’s attempt to be the liberal Fox News isn’t working. For a few months, it was ahead of CNN and challenging the house that Ailes built for the top spot. Now, it’s back in third.
Bill Carter of the NYT (“Leaning Forward, MSNBC Loses Ground to Rival CNN“):
Rachel Maddow, the biggest star on the MSNBC cable network, just posted her lowest quarterly ratings results ever.
“Morning Joe,” MSNBC’s signature morning program, scored its second-lowest quarterly ratings, reaching an average of just 87,000 viewers in the key news demographic group.
And “Ronan Farrow Daily,” the network’s heavily promoted new afternoon show, which stars a 26-year-old Rhodes Scholar with a high-profile Hollywood lineage, has been largely a dud.
Though it has mostly happened quietly, which may be a comment on the cable network’s larger status in the media landscape, MSNBC has seen its ratings hit one of the deepest skids in its history, with the recently completed third quarter of 2014 generating some record lows.
Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, acknowledged that his network had been struggling, but put it in the context of the overall drop in cable news. “This has been a tough year all around,” he said. “All three cable news channels are drawing a smaller combined audience than they were five years ago.” He also emphasized that despite the plunge that caused it to trail CNN in the last quarter, the network remained ahead of CNN for the full year.
In the past, MSNBC’s ratings have typically fallen during times of intensely followed major news events. The current period is awash in them, with stories like ISIS and Ebola commanding a high degree of international reporting. This plays well to CNN’s strengths.
MSNBC consciously established its brand as politics-centric, approaching stories from a left-of-center viewpoint, in deliberate contrast to the right-of-center approach of Fox News, which continues to dominate the news channel ratings. At the same time, MSNBC moved away from a close relationship with NBC News that it had during the early years of the network. Today, fewer NBC News correspondents appear on MSNBC.
Griffin’s overall point is worth keeping in mind. We’re really talking about who’s the tallest midget here. None of the cable news channels consistently gets high ratings compared to the big four broadcast networks or even some of the cable entertainment channels. It’s a niche market.
Over the last five years, Fox News and CNN are both down 13 percent in total audience in prime time; MSNBC is down 21 percent. Fox has little to worry about because its numbers so dwarf the others. CNN has responded with a new strategy that mixes its traditional hard news approach with a regular lineup of pre-produced original series. It had a major success last week with the latest of them, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” with Mike Rowe.
The fact of the matter is that, in a world where we can all check the news anytime we want via our smart phones, there’s very little demand for old style television news. The audience for that is either the elderly—who advertisers inexplicably consider not valuable enough to bother with despite their enormous wealth and leisure time—or occasional, when catastrophic events make the stream of consciousness style of live breaking news worth enduring.
Fox figured out how to make it appointment viewing: focus mostly on talking heads and have a point of view that was being insufficiently catered to. At its inception, at least, there was something to the “Fair and Balanced” mantra. The big three networks were seen as representatives of a Manhattan-based elite and CNN was the plaything of billionaire liberal Ted Turner. Showcasing the likes of Brit Hume from ABC and bringing a more conservative viewpoint, they combined gravitas in their main news operation and an appeal to the folks in flyover country in their talking heads segments. Over time, the “balance” part went out the window, with the network becoming ever more partisan and inflammatory. Still, they’ve secured the viewership of rural geriatrics.
MSNBC would seem to have a huge edge: NBC. While all of the big three networks have drastically cut back their news operations since their heyday—keeping them at all only because of FCC licensing requirements—NBC News remains a marquee brand in the television news industry and the ability to leverage their on-air talent, nurture rising stars, and go long form on stories they’re already reporting on would seem like a recipe for quality programming. Then again, the MS part of the brand—Microsoft—seemed pretty valuable, too, bringing a combination of deep pockets and insight into the technology scene. They never capitalized on that, either, and are in fact no longer affiliated with Microsoft.
MSNBC has always struggled. There never seemed to be a rationale for a third cable news channel. And it has had a history of finding random people with zero news or broadcasting experience—Ron Reagan, Jr., anyone?—and giving them shows for no apparent reason.
As Mediaite’s Joe Concha notes (“MSNBC Eyes Canceling Ronan Farrow Show Amidst Schedule Shakeup“), they seemed to have found a niche with the “Lean Forward” (i.e., lean left) approach.
Just 20 months ago, it was coming off its best year — a year that featured a custom-made presidential matchup for its progressive hosts to dissect on a daily and nightly basis: A sitting black Democratic president versus a real-life Republican Gordon Gekko. Black vs. white. Rich vs. poor. Hell, women vs. (GOP) men. The script couldn’t have written itself better for the “Lean Forward” network, who pushed these narratives hard all the way to election day.
A few months later (March 2013), MSNBC President Phil Griffin set his sights on the always-dominant Fox News, declaring his network will overtake first place in the cable news race by the end of that year.
That . . . hasn’t happened. Those heady days are as distant now as Occupy Wall Street.
A well-placed source tells me MSNBC will be announcing major programming changes sometime in the next month, including the cancellation of Ronan Farrow‘s afternoon program, Ronan Farrow Daily.
Mr. Farrow’s program — which now averages around just 50,000 viewers in the key 25-54 demo — has never performed well despite the hype that originally preceded it last February before its first airing. In the third quarter of this year, the show is down 51 percent from what occupied its 1:00 PM EST time slot a year ago (Andrea Mitchell Reports). Whether the 26-year-old Rhodes Scholar still stays on with the network in a pundit capacity isn’t clear.
While I’ve never seen the show—or Farrow in any capacity—before, his failure is hardly surprising. He’s a kid who, as Concha puts it, “hadn’t even hosted a community access show before.” It’s absurd to give him his own show. And, as Concha snarks, “The plan was to bring in a younger audience, so why not put him at 1:00 p.m. ET when just a shade over zero of Millennials are actually watching TV?” That . . . makes no sense.
Similarly, “Griffin also placed Chris Hayes — who hosted a wonky, deep-dive-into-policy weekend morning program (Up with Chris Hayes) — into the most important timeslot on any network: 8:00 p.m. weeknights.” I’ve never seen Hayes’ new show but I watched a couple segments of his old Sunday show and found him likable and refreshingly wonky. But, even if I were a cable news watcher, I’m so atypical a consumer of news that I’m a poor target at which to aim. There just ain’t enough policy wonks out there to build a network around. The results have been predictable:
The awkward Hayes has trouble breaking 100 in the demo lately, and this is during an election year with Senate control in the balance. For context, Bill O’Reilly did 556 on the last show he hosted. Anderson Cooper on CNN: 282. Hayes: 104. The following night (Thursday, October 9), Hayes dropped to a 75. My source also tells me Griffin is looking at the Hayes situation closely because of the effect his program is having on the rest of MSNBC’s primetime lineup (and its biggest star, Rachel Maddow), but says Hayes and the show are safe for now.
Whether an even-lower-rated host (Ed Schultz, for example, who is getting beat anywhere from 5-to-1 to 9-to-1 by Fox in the demo at 5:00 PM) is also a cancellation candidate isn’t known right now. What is clear is the score these days: According to Bill Carter of the New York Times in a damning piece over the weekend, “In the first quarter of 2009, MSNBC averaged 392,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic for its weeknight lineup. In the third quarter of this year, the number is down to 125,000.” The morning show (Morning Joe) — which created the most buzz of any offering on the network at one time — now trails CNN’s New Day for the fifth straight month in the race for second.
Typically, if I’m up early enough to watch “Morning Joe,” I’m online and trying to write blog posts about what I’m reading. For a couple years after my wife died, I was a regular viewer because I was wrangling small children in the morning and couldn’t concentrate enough to write. I found the show refreshingly different at first. Rather than the happy talk about nothing at the heart of most of the morning shows, it focused on news and politics—and yet did so mostly with humor and a light touch rather than the shrillness of late night talking heads. But, frankly, the format was getting tiresome. First, the byplay between the show’s star, Joe Scarborough, and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, was annoying. Her function seems to be that of an exasperated wife rolling her eyes at her ne’er-do-well husband’s shenanigans. Second, there are several semi-regular panelists whose presence was distracting and value-negative. In particular, I have no idea why Donny Deutsch, who seems to know nothing about anything, is on so much.
As to Griffin’s plan for reversing course, Concha reports,
Griffin says the network needs “to adjust; we’ve got to evolve.” That usually means some hosts and programs go away. Question is: What is the bigger plan moving forward?
One idea on the adjust and evolve front is start covering hard news again. A 2013 Pew Research study indicates that 85 percent of MSNBC’s programming is opinion, or 30 points higher than Fox and 39 points more than CNN. But as reported here, Griffin also said in 2013 that when it comes to breaking news, MSNBC “isn’t the place for that” (having former pundits in anchor chairs for most of the day doesn’t help on the breaking news front, either).
So can he unring that bell? And is NBC News — which is more noticeably absent from MSNBC lately — jump on board by providing the necessary resources when needed?
Another idea is to adapt more reality programming and documentaries into its schedule. It appears to be working at CNN, best evidenced by Anthony Bourdain‘s consistent ratings success and Mike Rowe’s impressive second-place 507K debut in the demo last Wednesday night (particularly when compared to Megyn Kelly’s 556 and Rachel Maddow’s 143). Shark Tank seems to be the only thing working for CNBC these days, so perhaps tapping more reality resources like MSNBC does with the its highest-rated program, Lockup, isn’t the worst plan in the world, either.
Frankly, a 24-hour news network that doesn’t aim to be a go-to place for, well, news is in the wrong business. Then again, I can’t understand why CNN’s Headline News, which was basically 48 old-style nightly newscasts in a row, decided to become some bizarre mishmash of third-rate punditry and news coverage, either. And if the idea is to drop news and just get ratings through obnoxiousness, why not just pull the plug entirely on pretending that it’s news? Unlike the broadcast networks, there’s no requirement to pretend to operate in the public interest.
Indeed, that ultimately seems the way to go. The cable news demographic is aging itself out of existence and there’s no reason to think that they’re going to be replaced by today’s middle-aged cohort. Even those of us who grew up on Walter Cronkite and a daily newspaper (“Yesterday’s news in your bushes today”) have moved on to getting our news from the Internet.