Saturday, March 26, 2011

Leaning sideways

The recent supersurplus of news from several of the world’s incendiary zones hasn’t equally benefited the news organizations covering those events. As events in Egypt, Libya and Japan have exploded round the clock over the last two months, the viewer ratings have reinforced the highest, best use of the news model created for those events.

That’s not good news for MSNBC.

Bill Carter, the go-to reporter for all things television at The New York Times, reported Wednesday that CNN has set the pace for international coverage of the recent upheavals, a stellar ratings success “mostly at the expense of MSNBC, which has fallen into third place across the board because of CNN’s surge.”

The numbers tell the story. Carter reports:

“In prime time Saturday, CNN averaged 678,000 viewers among the audience most desired by news advertisers, ages 25 to 54. MSNBC averaged 254,000, while Fox News drew 353,000. On Sunday, CNN averaged 442,000 viewers; MSNBC, 298,000; and Fox News, 344,000.”

CNN’s leverage on the weekends is leaching into weeknights, Carter says. “For more than two years, MSNBC has consistently beaten CNN in prime time on weeknights. But for March, CNN has moved ahead from 8 to 11 p.m., beating MSNBC in every hour among the 25-to-54 audience.”

Despite having a new prime-time lineup in a time period that’s seen numerous major events foreign and domestic — low-hanging fruit for journalists — MSNBC hasn’t advanced its agenda in the headcount of viewers.

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One reason may be the man they fired in January, Keith Olbermann, creator and host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” once MSNBC’s true prime-time tentpole and a major ratings success for the network. In the world of TV news, irony piles on irony. It would seem impossible that a cable network without a sharp, definable public identity would fire the man who gave them one. Just as improbable is the likelihood that that man could now have as much to do with that network’s prime-time success as he did when he worked there.

What may be developing is a holding action by viewers who fled MSNBC after Olbermann was relieved of “Countdown,” viewers hungry for Olbermann’s next move: a prime-time news and commentary program on Current TV, set to air in the May-June time frame.

MSNBC’s prime-time numbers suggest that viewers haven’t fully developed a destinational passion for its latest prime-time lineup. A read of reactions to the Olbermann firing in comments at various web sites finds many people stung by the dismissal, and suspicious of involvement by the management at Comcast, the cable giant that formally took over NBC Universal days before Olbermann left the GE Building.

Assuming that Olbermann’s appeal is as transferable now as it's been in the past, the upside for Current could be huge; the fledgling network is available in far more homes than actually watch it. With Olbermann’s singular style and the right marketing brought to bear, he could regain the catbird seat at eight o’clock, at a network that's as much an upstart now as MSNBC was in 2003.

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But the Olbermann issue is in some ways the least of MSNBC’s concerns. One of their pressing matters is the competition that’s on the air right now.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper is one of the few U.S. cable journos to set the standard for the kind of on-air presence fundamental to being taken seriously as a news player in a 24/7 age.

Whether being chased and assaulted by a mob in Cairo or reporting that very event with a Flip camcorder in a striking slice of reportage, he’s defining 21st-century, on-the-ground newsgathering. He may parachute in, but Cooper hangs around for more than a photo-op, and he doesn’t back down. The ratings confirm that, for viewers, Cooper and various colleagues (Ben Wedeman, Nic Robertson and select others) have been the team to beat. Even the Fox can’t catch ‘em on a properly global scale, despite the deep international reach of media velociraptor Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

“This is where CNN excels,” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, told Carter. “This is in their bull’s-eye, and they’ve done a great job. Even Fox News, which dominates them, gets beat by CNN at times like this.”

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Then there’s this other matter for MSNBC, nothing less than a weekend identity crisis. For five nights a week, the network does a creditable job in prime-time, with anchors Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews weighing in with news, commentary and intelligent guests speaking on the day’s hot political and national issues.

But on Friday nights (starting at 9 p.m. on the West Coast) and continuing on Saturdays and Sundays, MSNBC basically loses its mind. Viewers are transported from the daily world of news into the world of “Lockup,” the network’s documentary series exploring life inside several of the toughest American prisons. A series that MSNBC first aired in 2005 and has been diligently repurposing ever since.

“This is our strategy for weekends, and it has worked well for us,” Griffin told Carter.

Others aren’t charitable about MSNBC’s efforts in weekend news. Carter quotes Judy Muller, an educator and former journalist, who put things tartly:

“I think MSNBC really blew it,” said Muller, a former network news correspondent, now an associate journalism professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

“They lost a great opportunity to set themselves out as one of the few places people can get breaking news. When you are near a nuclear meltdown, I can’t imagine a decision to go with your regular programming at that point.”

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In his defense, Griffin said MSNBC always has a crew on standby to go on the air if events warrant. He told Carter that the lead correspondents covering Libya for NBC News were available to MSNBC, and some of their reporting was aired Saturday.

For sure, when MSNBC can make use of NBC resources in the field, news coverage from North Africa and the Middle East has been superb. Richard Engel, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent and Cooper’s only rival for total-immersion work in the field, has turned in smart, incisive reports under fire from Egypt and Libya, and earlier from war zones in Iraq.

But for Griffin, international coverage with MSNBC’s name on it “is the last area where we’re vulnerable” to CNN. “We’re chipping away, but it’s going to take us awhile.”

Griffin told Carter that MSNBC had previously moved ahead of CNN by way of its flood-the-zone political coverage. But it’s that very totality of political news, performed almost flawlessly every two years, that begs the question of why covering breaking international news on weekends is so apparently problematic.

If we had an election in this country every month, MSNBC would be indomitable in the ratings. Without that, would-be MSNBC viewers are pretty much left to their own devices on the weekends, when the network effectively becomes the Incarceration & Forensics History Channel.

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“Our strategy has gone in a different direction on the weekends,” Griffin told Carter. “It works. It’s very effective. Unfortunately, during this kind of time, it’s always a bit complicated.”

Those last sentences are a perfect distillation of the problem.

What does Griffin mean when he says MSNBC’s weekend strategy is “very effective”? Effective at holding down third place? Is the network so generally conditioned to news as a Monday-through-Friday phenomenon that it doesn’t make allowances for surprises in times of high chaos — like the one last Saturday night in Tripoli, which CNN covered like a blanket?

And what did he mean by “times like this” and “this kind of time”? Griffin’s quaint, wistful phrases suggest that MSNBC hasn’t made adjustments for this kind of time, which most people would acknowledge could be pretty much any time, these days.

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The purpose of being on cable is to be there to report the news as close to full-time as possible, freed of the broadcast-era constraints that gave cable news a reason for being in the first place. News clusters like the ones we’ve seen in the last few months don’t happen that often, it’s true. But that doesn’t eliminate the need to have the staff, the resources, the infrastructure, the institutional framework in place so that consistently responding to those events — under the network’s own banner, live or in something very close to real-time — is the rule rather than the exception.

CNN gets that. Much of MSNBC’s future as a contender in the modern mediasphere depends on whether they get it, too. Contrary to the spirit of its “Lean Forward” branding campaign, MSNBC right now is leaning sideways at best, employing aspects of a 9-to-5 broadcast philosophy in a 24/7 cable era, hunkering down behind a concessional strategy that surrenders the high ground of cable viewing, and all the ground underneath, for two days of the calendar week.

And to characterize it as “leaning sideways” is probably too charitable by half. MSNBC is in its own holding action, in a war of attrition with itself. And in an information world populated by ravenous, fickle and sophisticated viewers — and the advertisers who covet them — not gaining ground is losing ground.

Image credits: Olbermann: MSNBC. Cooper in Cairo: HuffPost/Getty Images via CNN. Screengrab from Ed Schultz promo video: MSNBC. Engel, August 2010: MSNBC. Griffin: MSNBC. Logos are the properties of their respective corporate parents. 

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