Sunday, March 11, 2012

Weekends with (and without) MSNBC


MSNBC has been gradually morphing into the kind of full-service cable network it’s long promoted itself to be. Its Monday-through-Friday slate of programs have been insightful, provocative and generally top-shelf, combining a range of flavors of news, analysis and robust commentary that’s a far cry from the not-so-distant past.

One of the big knocks on the network has been its weekend programming; for much of Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time, MSNBC has strangely transformed itself into the Incarceration Channel, with rolling segments of its six-year-old “Lockup” documentary series, which looks at life in some of America’s grittiest prisons. It’s as if weekend-mode MSNBC checks its identity as a newsgathering operation at the door of the Suffolk County Jail — there to remain in solitary until it’s released sometime late Sunday night, when it goes back to its day job as a news network.

Lately, MSNBC’s work-release identity has shown some promising changes. Over the last five months, the network has ushered in a weekend lineup of three new programs, a lineup that brings the same smart, incisive news analysis and straight reporting to Saturdays and Sundays as MSNBC does reliably the rest of the week. But by virtue of scheduling, and depending on where you live, that shiny near-new lineup may be the best collection of weekend news shows you’ll never see.

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MSNBC began its switchup in September with the debut of “Up With Chris Hayes,” awarding a branded news and political analysis program to Hayes, a frequent MSNBC commentator and guest host for several of the network’s prime-time programs in the past. Hayes, editor at large for The Nation, brings a freewheeling, no-holds-barred energy to a variety of topics on the program.

Also in September, MSNBC rebranded its weekend news block hosted by longtime network newscaster Alex Witt. Her show, “Weekends With Alex Witt,” brings a news veteran to weekend mornings; Witt, with MSNBC since 1999, has been one of the network’s more reliable Swiss army knives over the years, reporting on a range of stories from various hot spots with authority and grace.

The network followed in mid-February with “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a news analysis program hosted by its namesake, an author, professor at Tulane University; a founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South; and a columnist for The Nation. Harris-Perry was also a frequent guest on numerous MSNBC shows, and even pinch-hit for Rachel Maddow on previous occasions. She arrives as the first African American woman hosting a news and politics show on a major network.

Harris-Perry’s show (its title typographically shorthanded as “MHP”) indicated that MSNBC was serious about expanding the voices on its air. Harris-Perry followed the Rev. Al Sharpton as an African American program host on the network (Sharpton’s show debuted in August). Since Harris-Perry debuted, she’s spoken truth to power on matters of race, gender politics and other combustible topics she’s invested with humor and the insights worthy of a top-shelf academic.

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The early reactions have been promising, David Sirota, recounting his experience as an “Up” guest, wrote in Salon that Hayes’ program “purposely rejects the manufactured red-versus-blue mallet that bludgeons every issue into partisan terms. Instead, the program’s host is creating a space for more expansive discussions with voices typically deemed too unconventional, provocative or dangerous to be allowed anywhere near a television set. ...

“If it succeeds, it will play a huge role in creating a new model that will serve journalism and the citizenry far better than today’s vast television wasteland.”

In the Christian Science Monitor, Courtney E. Martin said of Harris-Perry: “Her professorial credential is beyond unusual for a TV show host. It adds a welcome intellectual quality to a more diverse public conversation.”

Ann Holmes, writing in The Washington Post, said her show was “a rebuke of sorts to the rest of the cable news landscape, which, maddeningly and inexplicably, continues to hew to the middle-aged, white and shouty male demographic.”



Better and better. MSNBC’s making big inroads in changing its weekend television landscape. The problem, then, is getting people to watch — for reasons that have nothing to do with the programs themselves.

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The American weekend is a secular-sacred thing. For most working Americans, the 9-to-5, five days a week occupational diktat is merciless. In our oversubscribed lives, the weekend is the one block of time we have to ourselves to get caught up on doing what’s absolutely necessary. Like sleeping (or other horizontal endeavors).

This complicates the reach for an audience to enjoy some of the best, most intelligent programs on the air. “Up” goes up on Saturdays and Sundays at 8 a.m. Eastern time, “Melissa Harris-Perry” gets going those same days at 10 a.m. Eastern, and “Weekends” airs at noon in the east.

This means that for about 53 percent of the country, the three programs of MSNBC’s newish weekend lineup are likely to be a hard thing to make destination viewing. Erudition and insights aside, TV shows of any kind are a push to wake up for on weekends between 5 and 7 a.m. — all west of the Eastern time zone.

There are people on the West Coast, for example, who might not be prepared to wake up for a lawyer’s reading of a relative’s last will and testament at 5 a.m., much less to regularly watch TV — to do more of what they do already, four or five evenings a week.

And time-shifting with digital video recorders to watch the new MSNBC lineup isn’t the answer; according to Nielsen research, only about 40 percent of American households have DVRs in the home. The rest of the country is left to (time) shift for itself without the viewing-on-demand that DVRs make possible.

Which is a challenge for MSNBC’s estimable weekend block. In its drive to court a new audience for the weekend shows, the network is attempting to do one of the toughest things in business: change consumer behavior — force consumers to adapt to their schedules, rather than the other way ‘round.

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Whatever the ratings for “Up” and “Melissa Harris-Perry” are, they’d certainly be enhanced with a scheduling change to accommodate more of the country, the low-hanging fruit of millions of TV viewers who’d probably watch these important programs, if only they weren’t doing something just as important to them.

The current program schedule is problematic for another reason; ironically, the current air times undercut the power and impact of the programs’ hosts and their guests on the public discourse. It’s hard to figure in the national conversation when literally half the nation is asleep or otherwise engaged when the conversation is going on.

All props to MSNBC for breaking with at least some of the “Lockup” weekend addiction it’s had for years. Its fresh weekend lineup could be a boon for much of the country. Here’s hoping that, with just a little tweak of the network’s daypart planning, room can be comfortably made for the rest of the country ... west of the Mississippi.

Image credits: DVR penetration graph: TVbythenumbers.com, citing Nielsen data. All other images: © 2012 MSNBC.

4 comments:

  1. Hmmm, I never thought about ratings for MSNBC having to do with professional schedules, but it makes sense. I don’t DVR MSNBC though, I guess I just don’t think to do it, even though there are some shows I like. I was thinking that I DVR everything I watch, but news and sports ARE the exception. Like you said though, 40% of Americans, and I have seen statistics as much as 47%, but the number is growing for DVR users. I think that will be the case anyway where I work because the Hopper whole-home DVR is a long awaited piece of equipment for DISH subscribers. Since it will have 250 hours of HD recording time though, I think most people will be more likely to record things like news, or their favorite MSNBC anchors. I like your line though that nearly slipped by me regarding “horizontal activities.” I actually sent that to a friend because I was so surprised and laughing so much.

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    1. Hey gman: Thanks for checking in on the MSNBC blogpost. Yeah, I use the DVR to record a lot of shows, even some of the MSNBC weekend block. But a lot of people in the country don't have that option. It'd great if they could get the weekend crew on the air a little late later. But I'm not surprised at how the hours for the weekend programs favor the East Coast. It's the same reason that weather reporters on MSNBC (and CNN too) stand in front of the West Coast half of the maps of the United States and talk about the weather in the East. People don't seem to exist if they're west of the Mississippi. Thanks again.

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  2. Morning Michael... thank for the stats confirming my suspicions that MSNBC was doing so well, and particularly how well (and welcome) the weekend line-up has become.

    I laughed so hard the first time I heard Rachel Maddow say "Now, you have to go to prison" on a Friday night... and, of course, then I shed a tear because it was true :o(

    I certainly agree that it's sad the more western viewers have to get up before they go to bed in order to watch the line-up... hopefully they will get it worked out.

    As for me, at 54... naturally I have to get up to pee somewhere between 6-8 a.m., ...each time promising myself that I will trundle myself right back to bed so I can sleep in, yet... once I remember that the weekend line-up is starting, I almost always end up staying awake... at first resisting, but then resigning myself to a pot of coffee.

    My TV set is pretty much pinned to MSNBC... not because I'm some sort of a liberal leaning sheeple (in fact, I'm a recovering Republican), but because MSNBC truly has the only intelligent programming, anchors and guests.

    I want to thank you, and all those responsible for MSNBC... the world would be a sad place without you :o)

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    1. Hey Java Weasel:

      Thanks for reading my post (and my apologies for being so long getting back to you). Yep, I've heard Rachel Maddow use a variation of that prison line before myself. Seems to suggest the Lockup shows bug her too.

      It's a bit dear for me to wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. out here in Seattle to watch them. I do have the DVR set to record Melissa Harris-Perry. She's ready when I hit the coffee pot at 10. A little more civilized.

      Oh, and thanks for the thanks. I haven't been at msnbc.com for about five years now, but I like to think some of my DNA is still in there. And maybe the network too!

      Best wishes,

      Michael

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