MSNBC is in the midst of a total ratings free-fall. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Averaging 539,000 viewers in primetime and 175,000 viewers in the adults 25-54 demographic, MSNBC suffered double-digit drops from last May — down a respective 20 and 19 percent. Losses were less substantial in total day, down 10 percent to an average 346,000 viewers and down 7 percent to 115,000 adults 25-54, while all other nets pulled growth in multiple categories.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After President Obama’s triumphant return to the White House last November, BuzzFeed‘s Dorsey Shaw predicted a golden age for the progressive movement’s cable news network: “MSNBC’s Post-Election Ratings Should Make Fox News Nervous,” Shaw’s headline blared. “The two biggest shows at MSNBC won the holy grail of ratings demographics for four of the first five weeks after Obama’s reelection — and Fox News doesn’t appear to have a plan to stop them.”
What happened? Why was Shaw so very, very, wrong about MSNBC even maintaining its second-place status, let alone making “Fox News Nervous”?
At the time, Shaw wrote:
MSNBC’s method of cultivating a farm team of contributors for future hosting gigs has proven to be a successful strategy in the cable-news wars. It has produced a franchise player and ratings leader in Rachel Maddow, and the first winning foray into weekend political programming with Maddow protege Chris Hayes. Alex Wagner, Steve Kornacki, and Melissa Harris-Perry also travelled the same path — from contributor to guest host to helming one’s own show — and now MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein is rumored to be the next member of this minor league system to get called up for a hosting gig.
Except as the Huffington Post‘s Olivia Nuzzi reports, MSNBC’s farm team hasn’t been nearly as successful as Shaw wishes it was:
As CBS’s prime time schedule must have begun to look like one long episode of “All In The Family” (and some actors who had been great guest stars proved to be not so great star stars), so too has MSNBC’s entire programming line-up begun to look like one long episode of Maddow, or even Countdown. With the swapping in of Hayes on April 1st, all of MSNBC’s primetime hosts were now ex-8 PM substitutes, and virtually every host in the day time or on weekends had begun as regular guests or even formal contributors to those nightly programs. Even the newest host wasn’t free of the Archie Bunker effect. Kornacki did his first regular television work on Olbermann’s ill-fated show on Current TV.
In March of 2013, MSNBC announced that Ed Schultz’s 8pm program, “The Ed Show,” would be replaced by “All In With Chris Hayes.” For the network, it would be the fourth different 8pm program in two years. Unfortunately, “All In” wasn’t the success executives were hoping for, with its April ratings down 18 percent in total viewers from that month’s numbers in the previous year for “Ed.” Seemingly the only thing “All In” has succeeded in doing has been knocking off a portion of “The Rachel Maddow Show”‘s viewers, which itself is down seven percent from April 2012.
Fox News is by no means perfect. As Shaw and Nuzzi both note, the network is still far too dependent on O’Reilly. But that is no reason to pretend, or report, that MSNBC has figured out some new secret formula for ratings success.