Monday, July 8, 2013

MSNBC: The devil’s in the downtime between elections

MSNBC temporarily blew up its schedule and took it on the road. On Friday, the fiercely progressive news channel began a weekend hookup with the 2013 edition of the Essence Music Festival, started by Essence Magazine in 1995, and a major arts event in its own right, something that’s become an economic mainstay for the still-beleaguered city of New Orleans. All the channel’s heavy hitters broadcast live from the festival, all weekend; MSNBC branding was interlaced with the festival’s own for a week before that.

But blowing up the schedule? It’s hardly the first time MSNBC’s done that.

The channel launched its new weekend news analysis program, “Disrupt With Karen Finney,” on June 8. Finney, a former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee and longtime commentator on the network, is the network’s latest move to revitalize its weekend schedule, and the latest effort by MSNBC president Phil Griffin to recapture the bottled lightning his network had at the end of last year and into the spring. What a difference a year after a presidential election year makes.

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Last year around this time, and in the buildup to the 2012 vote, MSNBC could do no wrong. Making changes in a weekend schedule defined by the “Lockup” series of repurposed prison-life docs, the channel in early 2012 launched new weekend programs intended to bring in some of its best and brightest commentators to deliver news and analysis to the Siberia of Saturday and Sunday mornings on cable TV.

MSNBC was in the process of laying the groundwork for its own brashly opinionated ecosystem of news and commentary, one whose tagline — “Lean Forward” — doubled as a progressivist mantra in the runup to a transformative presidential election. The channel’s commitment to thoughtful, expansive analysis on weekend shows of two-hour duration (Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry as your wonkish, whip-smart hosts) signaled a willingness to shake up the news-show model.

Now, the channel’s all-in identification with a major African American culture event points to a populist reinvention of a major cable television property, something as rare as it is refreshing.

The devil, of course, is in the details. And the ratings.

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MSNBC DOUBLED down on its previous changes earlier this year ... and the head-scratching began. Hayes, host of “Up With Chris Hayes,” was moved from Saturday and Sunday mornings (when people were just getting used to it being there) to a five-night-a week schedule in the USDA-prime time slot of 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

To accommodate the Hayes move, MSNBC announced on April 25 that “The Ed Show,” hosted by progressive talk-radio bulldog Ed Schultz, would be moved to Saturdays and Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m., eastern, effective May 11. The show is set to expand to two hours sometime this summer.

Since Schultz joined MSNBC’s branded lineup in April 2009, and especially since he went to prime-time in October 2011, his program has gradually raised its profile with an unapologetically liberal perspective that dovetailed with the country’s electoral shift to the left (after the 2008 election) and championed the continuation of that shift (pretty much confirmed in the 2012 vote).

So for a lot of “Ed Show” viewers, the move to weekends was hardly welcome. “The Ed Show” made the move on May 11. And that’s about when the roof fell in.

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The week of May 13-17 — when all hell was breaking loose with the IRS 501(c)(4) scandalette and the Justice Department’s surveillance of The Associated Press — MSNBC cratered with its lowest ratings in seven years, with 350,000 average viewers and only 94,000 viewers among the coveted 25-54 demographic. “That’s a 17 percent and 22 percent decrease, respectively, since the comparable week last year,” reported Mediaite.

Was the Schultz move the reason for this, or even a reason? Maybe. Since 2009 and this year, Schultz was easy to find in the MSNBC schedule, in a perfect lead-in position to “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

But with Schultz’s May move to the relative hinterlands of the weekends, eyebrows have been raised among the program’s faithful, who got used to seeing Big Ed raise hell in prime-time.

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AND VIEWERS took their time warming up to “All In With Chris Hayes,” the Hayes show rebranded for its prime-time spot. Hayes’ more cerebral, explanatory on-air style has been a big contrast from Schultz’s rhetorical red-meat populism, and a lot of viewers were slow to make that leap.

Jordan Charlton wrote in Mediaite on May 30: “Disregarding whether you love or hate ‘Big Eddie,’ from a network ratings point of view, Schultz was delivering the goods while occupying the anchor chair for only a year and a half. For the third quarter of 2012, he fell slightly short of a million total viewers per night, and had even occasionally beat network superstar Rachel Maddow and the rest of his MSNBC colleagues in primetime. ...

“[A]fter a decade-long network identity crisis, Schultz’s fiery barn-burning style helped MSNBC find its brand as the cable voice for the progressive movement, more specifically as the champions for a middle class under attack.

“You had an anchor occupying the [prime-time] chair for less than two years, garnering solid ratings, with the presumable chance to make even more gains with 2014 midterm coverage right around the corner, and of course presidential election coverage starting earlier and earlier each cycle,” Charlton said. “Bigger picture, looking at the results of the 2012 election, you have a country moving considerably more left of center, with the most popular liberal radio host in the country manning your most important hour.”

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MSNBC faces a challenge that’s a consequence of the company’s basic, organic identity — what MSNBC network programming is. According to the Pew Research Center's annual "State of the Media" study, released in March, on MSNBC, “opinion fills a full 85% of the channel’s airtime.”

A separate Pew examination of programs, whose findings were included in the “State of the Media” report, found that MSNBC was “by far the most opinionated of the three networks, with [85 percent] of its primetime coverage coming in the form of opinion or commentary. And that remains the case with many of its packaged segments. Host Rachel Maddow, for example, often begins her show with a lengthy segment combining a monologue with video clips that can last for seven minutes or longer.”

The Huffington Post reported on July 2 that MSNBC was in third place, behind Fox News and CNN, in primetime eyeballs for the second quarter of 2013, and had dropped to fourth place in viewers for all dayparts. The channel also hit third place in the important 25-54 demographic. But overall, going back to the birth of the Lean Forward tagline in October 2010, MSNBC had maintained a tenuous-to-solid hold on second place, behind only Fox News.

The fly on the lens? Much of that second-place showing was a result of a variety of special events: the takeout of Osama bin Laden, the London Olympics, the runup to the primaries, in late 2011, and the 2012 debate schedule and the presidential election. Which raises the question of how well MSNBC can do when presidential politics doesn’t figure as much in viewers’ lives, and when pundits’ opinions on politics don’t resonate as much.

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ANOTHER CHALLENGE seems to be an internal misidentity, reflected in a recent unforced error that, given the competitive landscape of American television, is flat-out bewildering. In a June 3 interview with The New York Times, MSNBC's Griffin, responding to concerns over his network’s five-spiral crash in the May ratings, said that, consistent with the branding and the audience the network pursues, MSNBC wasn’t the place to come for breaking news.

“We're not the place for that,” he said. “Our brand is not that.”

Which is and isn’t true. As anyone who watches MSNBC with any regularity already knows, breaking news may not be its brand but the channel does present breaking-news stories; its red-and-white BREAKING NEWS graphics announce themselves at the bottom of the screen at least once or twice every weekday.

Because big breaking-news coverage takes a back seat to the MSNBC focus on domestic politics, Griffin’s wrong. It’s not that MSNBC doesn’t do breaking news. MSNBC just doesn’t do breaking news full out — with the kind of total-immersion coverage that’s been CNN’s stock in trade for more than 25 years.

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That longstanding perception of big-news-equals-CNN will be hard to change in the public mind, and it won’t change at all with Griffin’s comment, which flies in the face of what’s on the air every day. If Griffin’s statement to The Times accurately reflects MSNBC news philosophy, it overlooks the implicit relationship between MSNBC and NBC News.

Sharing some of the same company DNA, they also share many of the same newsgathering resources, promotional synergies, technology and on-air personalities. On that basis, there’s no reason not to think of MSNBC when breaking news happens.

Griffin told The Times’ Bill Carter that “E is a news channel. The Weather Channel is a news channel. Politico is a newspaper. They all do news and information in a different way.”

“To say ‘news channel’ in the modern age is irrelevant,” he said, presumably with a straight face. Oh, I know what he’s thinking. It’s an idea advanced here several times: the increasingly stratified array of information choices available in the digital era means that the per se definition of “news” has undergone an irrevocable and individualistic shift; the term “news” is subject to highly elastic interpretations.

But when the public has a vote and your network has inexplicably dipped to third place in the ratings race, you may not be able to afford the luxury of thinking that “news” — in the most basic, analog, traditional sense — means something that doesn’t apply to you.

The phrase “news channel” is “irrelevant”? Only if you’re maybe not doing enough of it.

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THERE HAVE been signs of change. Since the May nosedive, Chris Hayes seems to have found his on-air mojo in the prime-time spot. This month, Hayes has combined his trademark withering intelligence with a new pugnaciousness as an interviewer. He’s got to be careful; at times he’s so enamored of interrupting his guests with follow-on questions before they’ve answered the first ones, he’s on the verge of morphing into Chris Matthews II.

And Hayes stepped in it on June 11, when a graphic on that night’s “All In” mistakenly identified the legendary segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace as a Republican, instead of a Democrat, which he was. To his credit, Hayes owned it almost immediately, tweeting that it was “a stupid, inexcusable, historically illiterate mistake.” It wasn’t the first time he’s whiffed like that.

But Hayes’ new muscularity is paying off where it counts: Mediaite reported on June 20 that, the night before, Hayes’ “All In” topped CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” in total viewers. Hayes had done the same thing the night before that, on June 18, besting Cooper in total viewers and those in the prized 25-54 demographic.

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Griffin can take heart in that, to some extent. The ratings drops for the second quarter probably can be attributed to the Ed Schultz move to weekends; there’s not necessarily a correlation between that decline and the network’s fundamental news model. And the newer ratings for Hayes seem to neutralize the downbeat implied by the Pew Research “85 percent opinion” poll. For now, at least, it seems to be what viewers want.

There’s an upside to being a channel identified by opinion; for MSNBC, it’s in the plurality of opinions from a demographically diverse bench of star players and a variety of guest voices across the political and social spectra, people we don’t generally hear from. The style of Hayes’ show — real conversation, not the barroom bloodsport of Matthews’ “Hardball” — goes a long way to giving “opinion-based” news programs a measure of redemption. He’s off to a good start.

But Hayes, like Schultz in that prime-time spot before him, will need to build on this momentum in the long, hard slog between now and the midterms ... at the end of next year.

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WHEN BIG things happen on the planet — a tsunami, a mile-wide tornado, an Arab Spring — people tend to gravitate to CNN. When big things happen in American politics, they aim the remote at MSNBC. If we had a presidential election in this country every year, MSNBC’s ratings would be untouchable. But we don’t, and there’s a lot of downtime between now and November 2014 (when MSNBC takes the lead on coverage of national politics again).

MSNBC gets kudos for its refreshingly populist efforts at moving the ball down the field, in a series of concerted personnel and programming moves intended to widen the strike zone of the national conversation, and who gets to participate in that conversation.

Now MSNBC has to convince both the viewers it has and the ones it needs to be consistently competitive that there’s more to its role in that conversation than being “The Place for Politics.”

If the May and June numbers are an indication of a trend, viewers may have come to the point where they think MSNBC is the place for nothing but politics, at a time when, to them at least, politics doesn’t matter. And that's a problem.

Image credits: MSNBC logo, Ed Show and All In title cards, breaking news screengrabs: © 2010-2013 MSNBC/NBCUniversal. Pew Research logo: © 2013 Pew Research Center.  

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