IF BY popular agreement 2013 was generally a year for all of us to forget, it was even more unlovable for the cable news networks, whose ratings jointly took a slide from more stratospheric levels of the year before, when the nets gloried in the sugar high of the ratings to be expected in a presidential campaign year.
In 2013, everyone took a hit, maybe none more so than MSNBC. With successive ratings declines, combined with controversies bad enough to drive two show hosts off the air and compromise the brand of yet another, the channel that prides itself on leaning forward ended 2013 in a defensive crouch, navigating more than one mistake.
This year starts with new changes afoot at cable television’s most daring programming petri dish, even as that channel tries to put some of its recent experiments behind it. Way behind.
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Melissa Harris-Perry, Tulane University professor, author, columnist for The Nation and host of her own free-wheeling MSNBC weekend show, apologized on New Year’s Eve for a segment on the show two days earlier, a piece about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's adopted African American grandson, Kieran, who was adopted in September by Romney’s son Ben, and his wife, Andelynne.
Harris-Perry and a panel — including actress Pia Glenn and comedian Dean Obeidallah — were finishing the “What’s So Funny About 2013?” segment of her Dec. 29 program, joking about a family Christmas photo of the Romney family that showed Romney dandling baby Kieran on his right knee. Harris-Perry asked for ideas for captions for the photo. Watch what happens:
“My goal is that in 2040, the biggest thing of the year will be the marriage between Kieran and North West,” she said. “Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?”
This kind of thing — taking potshots at an innocent — is very out of character for Harris-Perry, herself a mother, and a daughter from a biracial family. To her credit, she immediately tried to make things right, or at least a bit less wrong.
She followed that mea culpa with one written directly on her page on the MSNBC web site, in more or less the same language.
It may not make a difference. In recent days, outlets of the conservative media have been panoramic in condemnation of Harris-Perry. From stalwarts like National Review to mainstream newcomers like the Washington Times to the upstart Breitbart.com, conservatives have taken turns shaking the prey by the neck.
Even CNN got in the act, reporting on the incident in a slightly schadenfreudey way:
BUT HARRIS-PERRY’S slightly more nuanced lapse in judgment pales in comparison to what Martin Bashir did on the air in mid-November. Bashir, the host of his own midday MSNBC show, was taking political personality Sarah Palin to task for the latest nonsense spouted by the former nominal governor of Alaska — this time comments made on Nov. 9 in Iowa, statements that reached for tortured parallels between the national debt and slavery in America.
Palin’s comments, and Bashir’s historically scatological response, deserve to be seen in full:
You knew what was coming. Bashir mysteriously vanished from the air during the Thanksgiving break. Then, MSNBC announced on Dec. 4 that Bashir was leaving the network in the wake of his comments, and the firestorm of criticism they aroused.
“I deeply regret what was said, will endeavor to work hard at making constructive contributions in the future and will always have a deep appreciation for our viewers — who are the smartest, most compassionate and discerning of all television audiences,” Bashir wrote in a Dec. 4 statement.
MSNBC President Phil Griffin offered the obligatory Tersely Worded Statement: "Martin is a good man and respected colleague — we wish him only the best."
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ON OCT. 11, MSNBC debuted “Up Late With Alec Baldwin,” a late-night Friday-night talk show featuring the whip-smart, mercurial Emmy-winning actor in interviews with various newsmakers. Baldwin, alternately praising and poking some of his favorite homies on a homey waterfront diner set, showed command of a range of passions and interests reflected in a thoughtful choice of guests, and equally thoughtful inquiry.
Too good to be true? No, just too good to be true for very long. On Nov. 14, Baldwin was videotaped apparently using an anti-gay epithet against a photographer during an incident on a street in New York — one in a long series of dustups and shouting matches with the media over the years. Then the next day, with a rather silken sort of menace, Baldwin threatened a Fox News reporter outside his Manhattan apartment. “If you’re still here when my wife and kid come out, you’re going to have a big problem, you know that?”
Baldwin came clean. “I did not intend to hurt or offend anyone with my choice of words, but clearly I have -- and for that I am deeply sorry,” he said in a statement, as reported in The Hollywood Reporter. “Words are important. I understand that and will choose mine with great care going forward.”
"This is a mutual parting and we wish Alec all the best," an MSNBC statement read.
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These were some of the more visible screw-ups for MSNBC, faux pas that somehow symbolized the deeper, more enduring trouble for the network: it’s not gaining ground attracting viewers in the demographics that count.
Tim Kenneally at TheWrap reported on Thursday even worse news for MSNBC: It’s falling behind: “Fox News Channel scored a predictable ratings win among its news-cable peers in 2013, topping both the key 25-54 news demo and total viewership for the 12th straight year. ...
“For the first time in two years, CNN — which was taken over this by former NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker — took second place in cable news. In total day numbers, CNN averaged 413,000 total viewers, compared to 394,000 for MSNBC.”
At the end of the year, MSNBC was down 30 percent in prime-time viewers, and for viewers in the Holy Grail demographic — viewers 25 to 54 years old — the network was down 30 percent there, too.
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THE ONLY constant in cable TV is change, and MSNBC lives by that law more than most. This month, the network announced that Thomas Roberts, a mainstay of MSNBC daytime and a capable fill-in just about anywhere on the schedule, will become the new host of “Way Too Early,” the early-morning lead-in to “Morning Joe,” starting Jan. 13.
Alex Wagner moves her show to the 4 p.m. slot vacated by Martin Bashir’s sudden implosion. And sometime later this month, MSNBC will debut a program featuring Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow, and an overachiever’s overachiever.
According to the Daily Mail, Farrow enrolled in Bard College at the age of 11, graduated at 15, and went on to Yale Law School at 16, graduating from there by the time he was all of 21. A journalist and activist, he was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's adviser for global youth issues, and worked as a foreign policy adviser for the Obama administration.
Farrow’s biography is compelling in other ways. He’s officially identified as the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, but in a recent Vanity Fair interview, Mia Farrow said Ronan may have been fathered by Frank Sinatra. Speculation has been rampant about his sexual preference, with some wags insisting he’s gay or bisexual. He told The New York Times Magazine that it’s his intention that his MSNBC show will let viewers “walk away with the freshman-college knowledge, the cocktail-party take” on various topics of the day.
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“Ronan has established himself as a provocative, independent journalist capable of challenging people’s assumptions and empowering audiences,” said Phil Griffin, in an October statement. “His show will be a game changer for MSNBC, representing a fresh approach to how we deliver news.” This apparently done deal comes as more viewers call for a place at the table for Joy Reid, managing editor of TheGrio and a frequent MSNBC guest host.
Whenever it debuts, Farrow’s show will be the latest turn of the cards for MSNBC, a cable channel that has never tired of reinventing itself. Its big challenge in this fresh year is accepting the fact that it can’t reinvent its audience, a cohort of the viewing public that, according to the numbers, isn’t growing, as more people seem content to wander away ... wishing MSNBC All the Best.
Image credits: All still images (Harris-Perry, Baldwin, Up Late title card, company logo) © 2014 MSNBC, except Ronan Farrow: via Wikimedia Commons.