Looking at yesterday’s numbers for the Boston Marathon attack, I am struck by how low MSNBC’s numbers are in the Demo compared to CNN and FNC. Both of those networks were doing demo numbers in the million viewer range with CNN edging out FNC at 8, 9, and 10. By contrast MSNBC’s best showing was at 9pm and the best it could do is a little over half a million.
I wanted to compare yesterday to a “regular night” and after looking back the past couple of weeks I settled on picking April 4th for a comparison. It’s not a scientific choice but it is within MSNBC’s observed “trading range” for the past couple of weeks.
MSNBC essentially did a little better than doubling its April 4th demo. Sounds good at first until you see what FNC and CNN did. FNC did anywhere between double and better than triple its April 4th demo, depending on the hour. CNN did even better with upwards of 10x its April 4th demo number…again depending on the hour.
By comparison, Total Viewer increases were more uniform across all three networks which saw Total Viewer numbers essentially double, save for FNC at 9 and 10 which nearly tripled Total Viewers at those hours.
This suggests a proportional “breaking news demo gap” for MSNBC where, for some reason, the network can’t keep pace with its rivals’ proportional gains. The question is why? What is it about MSNBC that makes Demo viewers not tune in with the same proportial levels as they do on CNN and FNC? Is it because MSNBC viewers will instinctively tune in to NBC instead, something FNC and CNN do not have to contend with because their viewers have no similar outlet to deal with? Is it because MSNBC has heavily throttled back its dayside news operation in favor of POV analysis programming to a far greater degree than either FNC or (especially) CNN?
Whatever the reason, last night suggests that MSNBC has a breaking news scaling problem in the Demo that its rivals do not.
Related: Mediaite’s Joe Concha looks at the same numbers and argues that NBC News should take over breaking news stories.
Simply put, anchoring is one of the toughest white-collar jobs in the world. The good from the not-so-good are sniffed out by an audience quite quickly. In the cable news world, where great anchors are at a premium due to an overall shift to opinion journalism, there’s Shep Smith (FOX), Anderson Cooper (CNN), and everyone else.
And Monday’s numbers reflect that. In Cooper’s case—who has struggled on slow news nights—his ratings improved nearly 900 percent in the key 25-54 demo from his Friday night show to Monday night (155,000 vs. 1.393 million). In Smith’s case, he finished just a hair behind CNN in the demo but won the overall audience category handily at 5:00 PM with nearly four million viewers, or nearly four times the audience of Chris Matthews at the same hour.
So NBC can do two things:
(1) Simply concede breaking news to CNN and FOX.
(2) Pass the rock to another studio at 30 Rock
Option #2, of course, would mean to preempt its MSNBC programming in favor of NBC News and Brian Williams, who has been NBC’s face for news since 2004. His competitors—both steady and solid in the form of Diane Sawyer (ABC) and Scott Pelley (CBS)—are still relatively new to the big chair. Williams—a versatile, smooth, unflappable anchor who has proven he can deftly handle the kind of horrifying chaos we saw out of Boston on Monday—should be what MSNBC viewers are provided in situations like this.
It sounds good. On paper. But in practice it’s not that cut and dried. The problem with that strategy is it has been tried before in MSNBC’s distant past and it didn’t work then. Things have changed drastically since those days. MSNBC had no ratings then. It does now. But though the ratings have improved the breaking news problem is still a problem but for completely different reasons.
It all boils down to branding and network identification. MSNBC has carved out its niche as a POV analysis channel with occasional news bites. That’s what people tune in for the other 350 odd days a year when there isn’t big breaking news that sucks up multiple days. CNN’s brand has been hard news so naturally it’s a solid option people will tune in to when big news breaks. (though that may change drastically as Jeff Zucker continues to mold the network with his “everything is news” mantra). FNC’s dayside news operation is more news than opinion so it also remains a viable option for breaking news coverage in viewers’ eyes.
MSNBC, with its POV analysis brand, is apparently stuck with a network identification that does not serve it well when news breaks. It’s not just that brand that’s the problem. It’s also the apparent fear inside 30 Rock that to do news on MSNBC and to do it well risks undermining NBC broadcasts’ far more lucrative news properties.
This is why you never see a big get interview air on MSNBC first before NBC broadcast and when it does finally air it airs with NBC talent. This leaves MSNBC in the unenviable position of fighting for B-list gets for its exclusives; like Joe Biden. A list gets? They air on NBC first.
So you combine MSNBC’s POV brand with NBC’s reticence to make MSNBC a news destination, even in dayside, and you get a network that can’t draw proportionally comparable Demo viewers to CNN and FNC when news does break. Putting on NBC talent to handle the coverage will not fundamentally alter that forumula. The formula remains and the viewers know it. So they won’t follow Brian Williams over.
The only way they might follow Williams over is if NBC decides to alter the formula I just described; for example, beefing up dayside’s news bonafides with strong general news and A list get interviews with MSNBC talent. That would create a new identity for the network while not destroying what has been built in primetime and pre-prime. That, by the way, is more or less how FNC does it. But I don’t think NBC would dare go there.