In Depth: MSNBC Dayside Still Declining…
Mediaite’s Steve Krakauer writes about MSNBC Dayside’s dismal numbers…
Hey media writers and TV critics – remember when you had all those ideas about how to help CNN’s lagging prime time ratings?
Well, put on those executive hats again because it’s time to help MSNBC. The network’s 9am-5pmET (dayside ratings) is headed for its worst year since 1999, with even less viewers in May.
The MSNBC ratings comparison is based on the A25-54 demographic, and so far in 2010 the network is averaging 73,000 from 9am-5pmET. In the first two weeks of May, that average falls to 68,000. It takes going back to 1999 (less than three years after the network launched) to find an average lower.
Then Krakauer goes off the rails…and straight into quicksand…
So how does MSNBC fix this? Well hopefully the dozens of media writers have some ideas of their own. But when looking at what has been successful for the network, certain themes emerge. With Keith Olbermann as the face of the new MSNBC, we see strong personalities, and yes, a liberal tilt. That works for Rachel Maddow, as well as Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews before prime time. It doesn’t worry about appealing to the lowest common denominator – and in the process has built a loyal audience that has grown in the last few years (although MSNBC shows have declined year-to-year, as most programs have).
One solution could be to build up the dayside hours with more personality-driven news. While Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd are well respected journalists, their anchoring duties have not produced significant ratings.
What’s Krakauer been doing with his time? Apparently not watching MSNBC dayside (he’s in good company there). Krakauer just looked at MSNBC primetime and came to the same wrong conclusion that the MSNBC brass did last June when it tried to put strong personalities on dayside by hiring Dylan Ratigan for mornings, putting on Carlos Watson, and pairing David Shuster with Tamron Hall and letting them run wild with a more “shoot from the hip” newscast (we’ll ignore Nancy Snyderman’s show which never fit in with the rest of the format and was sort of forced down MSNBC’s throat by those with much higher pay grades). It’s why we continue to see Ed Schultz pop up anchoring on dayside, something he has no business doing. The point: Strong personalities are not a sliver bullet. Content matters as well.
MSNBC dayside had higher ratings just a few short years ago when it was doing nothing but a straight newscast without strong personalities, which itself is a strike against the strong personality theory. The difference between then and now boils down to two things; an over emphasis on micro-examination of U.S. politics and NBCU 2.0.
MSNBC dayside is boring and not compelling. But it’s boring and not compelling not because it doesn’t have firebrands driving the shows but because the capable people they do have on the roster have little to drive. NBCU 2.0 has forced so many reductions and cuts in NBC News’ infrastructure that MSNBC dayside is not currently capable of doing much. The morning live remotes are mostly remotes that were used earlier for Today and the afternoon remotes mostly concern stories that will be covered in depth for NBC Nightly News. There’s little that occurs in terms of reporting that creates an identity for MSNBC dayside, other than an as an aggregator for NBC News. And if you can find it on NBC, why watch MSNBC? This has always been a problem for the network but it’s far more pronounced today than it has been in years. Doing more with less was never going to work for a cable news operation and those chickens are finally coming home to roost.
Take 12pm. It’s the lowest rated hour that Krakauer cites in his chart. It’s also the hour that is the most boring as a steady stream of b-roll flies by and there are few interviews, fewer than other dayside hours. But is it the host’s fault? No. It’s the format’s fault. Contessa Brewer has a compelling personality but the format is not at all tailored to that personality. Brewer shines brightest when she can riff. This became evident when we saw her paired with Melissa Francis for the now canceled “It’s the Economy”. I didn’t like the business show format but it allowed Brewer to be Brewer. The current format given to her at 12pm doesn’t do that at all.
Because NBCU 2.0 has done so much damage to MSNBC’s ability to do much, and because of a nasty increase in partisan politics, NBC Washington has become a disproportionately larger player in MSNBC’s schedule. It’s why Andrea Mitchell has her own show. It’s why Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie have their show. It’s why NBC’s DC reporters are on all the time. It all adds up to too much politics and not enough news for people who aren’t interested in political minutia. This may work for election season but the rest of the time the over emphasis of all things political drags down MSNBC dayside. FNC, which itself spends a lot of time on politics and political issues, has a more diverse dayside newscast than MSNBC does now. It didn’t use to be this way.
Another problem is a familiar one, one that NBC hates being mentioned yet by its actions keeps in the viewing public’s consciousness, the notion that MSNBC is the farm team for NBC. Most of the best talent have been plucked by the mothership for other things. But it leaves MSNBC perennially weak because as soon as someone gets traction or develops any kind of buzz, they get yanked off the network for NBC. Six years ago, MSNBC had Lester Holt, Chris Jansing, Natalie Morales, and Amy Robach on its roster. They’re all gone to NBC now.
Add all these things together: budget cuts, talent poaching, a too thin rundown, an over reliance on politics to pad out the newscast…and you get what we have; a boring newscast that doesn’t keep viewers interested.
Worse, MSNBC is now trying to play long ball. It keeps trying to hit the home run with a single at bat to win the game, rather than take an incremental approach of getting people on base to ensure that it wins. It changes the programming up, tries to make a big splash, the big splash falls short, MSNBC cuts its losses and starts over by trying to make another big splash. It rebooted dayside in June last year and when that didn’t pay out immediately it rebooted it again at the start of this year. At this point it’s just throwing things on the wall, without a plan, just trying to get something to stick. It’s 1999 all over again. It didn’t work back then and it won’t work now.
This viewer erosion has taken years to get where things are now. It will take years to reverse. MSNBC needs to think long term. It needs to come up with a comprehensive plan that is consistent and long range and then sticks to it, even when the ratings don’t immediately shoot up fast, which they likely will not. MSNBC dayside was at its best from 2003-2007 because it had a strong roster and it would make tweaks and not wholesale changes. It needs a real news gathering, reporting, and analysis strategy that enhances dayside as a destination rather than undermines it. It’s not that hard to do. It just requires the will, and the money, to do it. And it also requires a change in thinking. NBC has become risk adverse in investing resources and finances in dayside. Given the numbers they’re getting they don’t want to pour more money down that hole. But in order to change the ratings direction it needs to understand that investing money and resources is…well…an investment. It’s not going to pay off immediately. But it should pay off eventually.
Update: One other thing that should be mentioned: PR. MSNBC dayside gets the least amount of PR of any dayside news operation, excluding maybe HLN. Bloomberg used to be the record holder but recently that network has been aggressive in getting stories out about its dayside talent. But MSNBC? I have to scour the web to find anything pertaining to MSNBC daytime talent and frequently I come up empty handed. PR is a necessary ingredient in a healthy flourishing newscast. PR by itself won’t get you ratings. You still need a compelling newscast for that. But PR, particularly print or online PR, does get you visibility. It brings the reader closer to the talent and gives them the chance to learn more. The only things people learn about the people on MSNBC dayside right now is from what they do on the air. That’s not enough. MSNBC needs to bring its people to the viewer in ways other than that.