Of Morning Joe, 8pm, and the Olbermann Sized Elephant in the Room…

Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher pens his obligatory “What’s wrong with MSNBC and how do you fix it article”. Everyone has to do at least one, and this was Tommy’s turn. Yes, that was a joke…but at the same time it kind of does feel like it doesn’t it?

One thing Christopher touches on is something Alex Pareene touched on a few days earlier, Morning Joe…

Part of the problem is with the network’s agenda-setting Morning Joe, which Pareene identifies as a too-political ratings drain, but which makes up for its poor ratings by wielding outsize influence with DC politicians and media figures. While host Joe Scarborough has been great on the issue of guns in the past, his conservative sensibility has led him to focus on political intrigue that hasn’t resonated with audiences, which sets the tone for MSNBC’s entire dayside lineup. There needs to be a little more editorial diversity on that program, and perhaps a reliably liberal presence on the show’s panel of regulars to go with the ostensible agnostics who currently populate it.

Pareene’s article apparently got under Joe Scarborough’s skin because Scarborough took to Twitter to rebut Pareene by pointing out Morning Joe’s ratings for May.

Congratulations to the Morning Joe team! More people watched Morning Joe in May than CNN, Headline News, CNBC and Fox Business. Way to go!!


Scarborough has a point. Morning Joe is the show that forced numerous talent shuffles on CNN’s American Morning and eventually drove the show off the air. It’s the show that killed American Morning’s successor, Early Start. It’s the show that CBS wanted to put on the air instead of what it has put on the air. Yes, it does wield outsize influence in the Beltway. It can get guests on its air that the rest of MSNBC would kill for the chance to have a crack at, save Mitchell Reports and Daily Rundown who carry their own D.C. cachet that they have little trouble getting guests.

But does Morning Joe set the agenda for the rest of MSNBC as Christopher argues? That’s debatable. Morning Joe’s agenda, whatever it is, differs markedly with what you get on 90% of MSNBC’s programming the rest of the day. So I’m not certain how you can have Morning Joe set an agenda if the majority of rest of your programming follows its own agenda? Given where MSNBC is at right now, I would actually argue that Now is the program that sets the agenda for (most of) the rest of MSNBC’s programming for the day. It’s MSNBC’s first show of the day that lurches hard left and makes no apologies for doing so (I suppose Noah Rothman might say I’m one hour late and that Thomas Roberts’ hour is the one where it all starts and there is something to that but Roberts’ hour is nowhere near as consistent about it as Now is).

I already said plenty yesterday about Chris Hayes show and how we can’t be making judgements yet, though plenty of people are. But Christopher does address the subject of 8pm from a different angle…

Even in a perfect world, without any external pressure from the news cycle, this would seem to be a risky maneuver with a dubious payoff. Ordinarily, you would want to give a brand-new show a strong lead-in, not rely on that brand-new show to lead off your entire primetime lineup. The knives have come out for Chris Hayes, which, like Pareene, baffles me, because there is no cable news personality who bends over backwards to give the opposing viewpoint air the way Hayes does. Maybe it’s the glasses. The show has delivered on its promise, substantively, but it has always seemed, to me, to be a better match for 10 pm, a space that would have also provided All In with a handy lead-in.

Lawrence O’Donnell‘s show, an established ratings brand like The Ed Show, would have seemed a more natural match for eight o’clock. The host’s pugnacious style and the show’s emphasis on news cycle sizzle make it a better fit for the time period. You’d have to change the name of the show, and tweak the format, but O’Donnell was better positioned to plug into that crucial slot than a completely untested property.

No he wasn’t and history shows he wasn’t. People forget that O’Donnell was the one who was tapped to fill 8pm after Olbermmann severed ties with MSNBC (and vise versa). O’Donnell couldn’t hold his numbers and began to undermine Maddow’s numbers…something Hayes’ show is being accused of now.

More ominously, the falloff for Mr. O’Donnell seems to be affecting MSNBC’s biggest name, Rachel Maddow. Her audience dropped 15 percent this year, to 245,000 from 289,000. She still beats Piers Morgan on CNN in the 9 p.m. hour, but his show has improved 18 percent over Larry King’s ratings last year, with 193,000 viewers to Mr. King’s 164,000.

MSNBC moved O’Donnell out at 8 and put Ed Schultz in. So I do not see why MSNBC would tempt repeating history by putting O’Donnell back at 8.

It all comes back to 8pm. Regardless of what’s happening with the rest of dayside. Regardless of how many breaking news stories or court cases there are. Regardless of whether Morning Joe really impacts the rest of MSNBC’s day or not. It all comes back to 8pm. And by “8pm”, I mean it all comes back to Keith Olbermann.

That’s what this is really all about when you think about it; MSNBC’s inability to replace Olbermann with someone who can be as big a star and pull in as big numbers as he did is not only what is keeping MSNBC from fulfilling Phil Griffin’s dream of taking on FNC but is also giving Jeff Zucker reason to hope when by rights he should have none. MSNBC has had two and a half years and they still can’t do it. Lawrence O’Donnell couldn’t do it. Ed Schultz couldn’t do it. Chris Hayes so far hasn’t done it.

Rachel Maddow is the biggest star on MSNBC. She is the brand in primetime. But, if I were to use an astronomy based analogy here, she would be Neptune to Olbermann’s Jupiter. Both are gas giant planets but one is just so much bigger than the other. If she were to be plugged in at 8 she too wouldn’t get his numbers. Olbermann was the ultimate lead off hitter for MSNBC, as O’Reilly is for FNC. The people that have come since just haven’t been able to do what he did in the ratings. And they haven’t come close either.

You can make adjustments on dayside. You can cover more news. You can turn your former news anchors back into news anchors (though some will have a harder time shedding their non-news anchor images than others). What you can’t do is create a superstar just by plugging them into a timeslot. Olbermann created himself. Maddow created herself. That why when you get a superstar you hold on to them for dear life. MSNBC didn’t want to hold on to Olbermann anymore and Olbermann, frankly, didn’t want to be held on to. It has been paying for that ever since. It will continue to pay for it until it can get someone who can deliver numbers like Olbermann could. If it can…

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40 Responses to “Of Morning Joe, 8pm, and the Olbermann Sized Elephant in the Room…”

  1. “It will continue to pay for it until it can get someone who can deliver numbers like Olbermann could.”

    ^ Lets not forget that, more often than not, hosts that deliver ratings like Olbermann (or Billo for that matter) come with egos that match those ratings. It is always a question whether a network wants to put up with the egos to get the ratings. Sometimes they do (Billo) and sometimes they don’t (Olbermann).

    Finding a firebrand liberal host who can get ratings and doesn’t have a huge ego is not going to happen easily. They can go for a firebrand with a big ego like Bill Maher and hope for the best or settle for lower but acceptable ratings and an ego you can live with like Maddow. What you can’t have is acceptable ratings and a giant ego like Ed.

  2. Well put. But you won’t catch FNC with a team of Maddows. And you risk ceeding ground to CNN.

  3. “MSNBC moved O’Donnell out at 8 and put Ed Schultz in. So I do not see why MSNBC would tempt repeating history by putting O’Donnell back at 8.”

    ^^My memory is that LOD moved himself to 10PM because he didn’t want to work Fridays and/or wanted to do the show out of LA. He won’t be interested in moving back to 8PM – and 5 shows a week. He doesn’t need MSNBC and won’t bow to pressure from above like most other hosts would.

  4. erich500 Says:

    Weren’t Olbermann’s ratings taking a pretty big hit after the Obama election?

    Once Bush was gone, the “need” for an Olbermann among the liberal/left also disappeared.

  5. Ed Shultz was the closest you got to ego and angry like Olbermann ,unless they try Bashir or Sharpton at 8 , the latter would be a bit silly as choice.

  6. The thing is, Ed Schultz managed to bring consistency to 8pm. Sure, he has an ego but he kept 8pm afloat. Chris Hayes doesn’t have the personality to do that and, quite frankly, he is the problem in primetime. As I’ve stated numerous times in other posts, Chris Hayes goes out of his way to ignore what everybody else is talking about. This might work when there’s not a lot of news going on – but when there’s a lot of stuff going on that’s drawing viewers to CNN and FOX, you can’t have Hayes going on the air and completely ignoring the major stories – the result ends up being that MSNBC viewers also go to CNN and FOX.

  7. erich500 Says:

    I don’t think getting a more liberal “Morning Joe” – which is what Pareene and Christopher appear to want – will solve any of their prime time problems. Who watches – or doesn’t – Hayes or Maddow because MJ is too much of an inside the Beltway type program?

    No one wants to talk about Matthews. His show is becoming increasingly unwatchable as he goes off on these bizarre crusades in defense of Obama or against Republicans.

    Unless they want to make major changes, this is the best they can do. During hot political times they can generate ratings and threaten Fox. But otherwise they’ll be struggling to stay with CNN and if the political news cycle doesn’t favor them they’ll be behind CNN.

    It is what it is.

  8. The thing is, Hardball with Chris Matthews has never gotten good ratings. Why MSNBC’s kept it going this long is the biggest mystery in the whole MSNBC fiasco.

  9. carolmr Says:

    “Congratulations to the Morning Joe team! More people watched Morning Joe in May than CNN, Headline News, CNBC and Fox Business. Way to go!!” – Joe Scarborough

    I’m confused. I thought HLN beat MJ.

  10. carolmr Says:

    “I don’t think getting a more liberal “Morning Joe” – which is what Pareene and Christopher appear to want – will solve any of their prime time problems.” – Erich

    A MORE liberal MJ? I didn’t think it could get any more liberal.

  11. Griffin and KO should get over themselves and get back to work. They both need Countdown back.

  12. Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  13. Morning Joe probably the only show in history where the White House regularly contacts a host in the middle of the program to offer talking points. Influence like that is gold to the network.

    It stays as long as Valerie Jarrett walks the West Wing.

  14. erich500 Says:

    Sure, and we can amend the constitution and place Bush as president again and, y’know, a return of KO to MSNBC will be a sure ratings winner.

    Just need to rearrange a few things first.

    Thinking out of the box, hell, that’s thinking outside of this plane of existence.

  15. You think KO bashing Obama as Bush Lite wouldn’t be interesting? C’mon..I’d watch that show.

  16. Griffin and KO should get over themselves and get back to work. They both need Countdown back.

    Agreed.

  17. You think KO bashing Obama as Bush Lite wouldn’t be interesting? C’mon..I’d watch that show.

    And he would go after Obama over all this.

  18. This is the best assessment of MSNBC’s woes that I’ve read yet. Their real problem is that they have a Keith Olbermann-shaped hole in their primetime, created by their own hubris, that they’ve never been able to fill, even though when they initially parted ways with him, they most likely thought they could “make more Keiths.” Not so much.

    This has only one factual mistake, and that’s saying that both Olbermann and Maddow created themselves. Olbermann really created Maddow; she probably wouldn’t have taken on hosting her own show if he hadn’t mentored and guided her into it. In other words, it’s because of Olbermann that MSNBC still has any primetime shows that stand out at all.

    Whether they like it or not, and they obviously would rather pretend they never heard of him now, MSNBC truly is “the house that Keith Olbermann built.” Until they tried him at 8 pm, they threw everything but the kitchen sink at that time slot to see if it would stick. Nothing did. Finally, about 50 different shows later, they tried Olbermann. Despite the basic quality of what he was doing, he wasn’t really cutting it ratingswise either. But somewhere along the line, he appeared to have made a decision: that if MSNBC was a sinking ship and he was contracted to stay on board for a while, he wasn’t just going to go down with that ship, he was going to do something to stop the sinking. The Special Comments began, people started paying attention, and MSNBC finally had a solid ratings-getter at 8 on its hands. His show became an incubator for new MSNBC hosts; they could cut their teeth on Countdown and move on to helming their own shows. The man knew talent when he saw it, and Rachel Maddow and David Shuster (who was ridiculously jettisoned before his time) were two prime examples. Had Olbermann stayed around long enough, he might have helped MSNBC fill its entire primetime with hit shows.

    But we all know what happened. KO grated on the fragile egos of the suits one too many times and eventually both sides had had enough. People complain a lot about how hard Keith Olbermann is to manage and how he can’t work for anyone, but I suspect the real truth is he can’t work well for people who need to keep reminding him they’re his bosses so they feel as if they have some sort of “control” of him. If they’d just hire him, treat him well and leave him alone, and not get their knickers in a twist every time he asserts his “nobody’s the boss of me” independence, they could have a long, happy working relationship and benefit very handsomely from what he brings to a whole network. But nooo, they’ve always got to do something to emphasize to him that they’re in charge, not him–and from there, things go downhill in a hurry. It’s sad.

    Olbermann once compared himself–to the tune of much ridicule from his haters–to a $10 million chandelier. I’d compare him more to a difficult-to-care-for hothouse plant. He may not be easy to cultivate, and may be highly demanding of just the right environment and care, and may at times frustrate the hell out of you, but provide him with what he wants and he will reward you with many spectacular blooms year after year, while other plants are just producing a few so-so flowers. Also, you’ll be able to seed more plants from him, whereas you’re lucky if the others even stay alive from season to season. He’s genuine talent–and real talent is worth the extra effort to keep happy.

    Perhaps someday some network executive is going to realize this and snap Olbermann back up. Until that happens, though, I guess MSNBC, CNN and HLN will be fighting over ratings scraps while Fox News continues to clean up by providing aging ultra-righties with a steady supply of what’s good for what Ailes them…at least until too many of them die for that to be profitable anymore. Pity.

  19. ^ Oh, yes, by all means, lets let a raging egomaniacal sociopath have complete dictatorial control over an entire cable news channel to do with as his majesty pleases with the resources of NBC news to boot. Sure, that will end well.

  20. Remembering Olbermann’s head injury and obvious problems (not counting that he could only see the world in 2D, imagine trying to walk with no depth perception), his various employers over the years took advantage of his instability for short term ratings gain. They knew he had a short fuze and was utterly unpredictable.

    I’m not saying that Olbermann was totally blameless. But after seeing his previous problems elsewhere, why would they think things would end differently for them.

  21. They should try it because it’s a good story which would grab a lot of attention. 8:00 is a gaping hole with no candidates to fill it except that one unemployed guy poised to outlast O’Reilly.

  22. One small error in the Truly’s comment. MSNBC actually asked Olbermann to start doing more commentary a few months after his Hurricane Katrina commentary and his “Politics and the Nexus of Terror” reports. There’s a reason I say Hurricane Katrina defined MSNBC. Sure, everyone came out and went after Bush after Katrina but nobody did quite like Olbermann. Unfortunately, he went over the top at times – especially towards the end of the Bush years, but he also hit it out of the park at times and Katrina was one of those times.

  23. Remembering Olbermann’s head injury and obvious problems (not counting that he could only see the world in 2D, imagine trying to walk with no depth perception), his various employers over the years took advantage of his instability for short term ratings gain. They knew he had a short fuze and was utterly unpredictable.

    For MSNBC, it was a long term ratings gain … and it’s being proven that they can’t last without him. Rachel Maddow can only hold that network on her shoulders for so long. Hell, look how quickly Current quite literally went up for sale after they fired Olbermann.

  24. Andy, MSNBC allowed him to go nuts, with the predictable results. He self destructed even faster at Current. Is there any reason that coming back to MSNBC for round #3 wouldn’t result in him being a mess from the start?

    Enjoy Mr. Olbermann at his classiest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qzz5Ok8L964

  25. DIdn’t the Olbermann/Current fallout start because they hired Cenk Uygur. I can’t remember specifics but I remember that Olbermann hated Cenk and thought he was too liberal or something.

  26. A broadcast legend.

  27. Mabye Olbermann thought a Cenk Uygur sounded like something that you’d need ointment for.

  28. Olbermann is too busy suing Al Gore to come back to MSNBC, go batshit, and sue them.

    MSNBC will hire a dynamite jugular before the risk another associate with Olbermann.

  29. Olbermann was obviously on to something when he was irritated about Current hiring Cenk. MSNBC got tired of Cenk’s shtick and fired him in world record time. Current only tolerated it because they needed something to build their network around.

  30. Cenk was critical of Obama. Not compatible with the Prime Directive.

  31. Has anyone had the heart to tell MSNBC that there simply are not enough Marxist/Socialist in the US to get them the numbers they want.

  32. Bricko, they simply refuse to believe the obvious.

  33. 1. A rare Bricko sighting!

    2. Andy…

    Olbermann was obviously on to something when he was irritated about Current hiring Cenk. MSNBC got tired of Cenk’s shtick and fired him in world record time. Current only tolerated it because they needed something to build their network around.

    Riiiiight…and that’s why Olbermann had Uygur on his Current show as fast as possible…because he thought he was too liberal.

  34. Yep. KO welcomed him aboard immediately, and told him to stay near the phone. I saw that show.

  35. bushleaguer Says:

    Truly S. – Olbermann did not “create” Maddow by having her on his show. I’ve read that Olbermann went to bat for Maddow’s show at 9pm with the NBC brass but Maddow was cutting her teeth on Tucker Carlson’s show well before she would show up as an analyst on Olbermann’s show (and eventually become a guest host).

    That aside, maybe once Al Jazeera officially takes over Current MSNBC can try to lure Uygur back over and promise him editorial control of his show (I’ve read that Uygur was happy to be out from MSNBC because he didn’t want to be a water carrier). As for Olbermann, I think that Spud is spot-on in that Olbermann-sized hole at 8pm. Because of his behavior I would be shocked if Olbermann gets hired anywhere else but stranger things have happened……David Caruso found his way back to ABC.

  36. savefarris Says:

    Part of the problem is with the network’s agenda-setting Morning Joe, which Pareene identifies as a too-political ratings drain

    Anyone else think it odd that a show on a network branded as “The Place for Politics” would get whacked as “too political”?

    Or is that just Tommy being Tommy?

  37. I see plenty of misinformation cropping up here, so let’s just review. First of all, Keith Olbermann is only a “raging egomaniacal sociopath” in the eyes of his haters, so that’s a groundless emotional rant. They’re always going on about how mentally unstable and thoroughly insane he is, but that’s a pretty see-through uber-right-wing canard.

    Second, Olbermann’s head injury affects his depth perception so he can’t drive, but it doesn’t mean he “can only see the world in 2D” or has some type of permament brain injury that has rendered him mentally incompetent or prone to irrational rages; that’s another argument from the haters. Sorry, no dice.

    Third, MSNBC did ask Olbermann to start doing more commentary after his Hurricane Katrina commentary and his “Politics and the Nexus of Terror” reports, but that was only AFTER he’d started doing that kind of work in the first place and they saw it was drawing interest. They never would have been so brave as to come up with the idea themselves. Why, in the summer of 2005, weeks before Katrina, Olbermann had a health scare and essentially did a “Special Comment” on quitting smoking before there really was any such thing as a Special Comment. Report is that Phil Griffin ran to him afterward and nearly bit his head off, screaming about how all that stuff about coughing up blood into a wastebasket after he’d had a mouth biopsy was going to turn off viewers. No, Hurricane Katrina did not define MSNBC, Olbermann did. He did great coverage of it, yes, but it was his willingness to put his opinions on the line BEFORE he knew it would be popular that started the MSNBC ratings rise. That’s what innovators do; they take a chance on doing something they believe in in the hopes that others will respond to it and like it. They don’t, like most TV execs, wait to see what is already successful and then say “Do more of that” or “Do something exactly like that.” In an industry of timid imitators, Keith Olbermann is an original, and that kind of originality is worth a less-than-conflict-free employer-employee relationship. Too bad more suits don’t recognize it.

    Fourth, Olbermann is not “too busy suing Al Gore to come back to MSNBC.” The suit is settled, and obviously Current couldn’t have believed it would have won against Olbermann easily or it wouldn’t have chosen to settle. And I doubt Olbermann is going to keep suing employers; he has no lengthy history of it, and really, who would? Unless you have a serious beef, suing an ex-employer is way too much trouble, costs way too much money, and, yes, it can damage your chances of re-employment elsewhere. So please, no red herrings. Olbermann is not a routinely litigious employee.

    Fifth, Olbermann certainly couldn’t have objected to Cenk Uygur because he was critical of Obama, because Olbermann is critical of Obama himself. (Yet another reason MSNBC seems to want to forget him, no doubt.) It’s true that he welcomed Uygur when he first came on board, but obviously something went sour after that; I couldn’t say what. Your guess is as good as mine.

    Sixth, MSNBC is a “Marxist/Socialist” network only to extreme right-wingers. Next!

    Seventh, let’s get rid of that canard that somehow Tucker Carlson is responsible for “discovering” Rachel Maddow by bringing her on his show. Olbermann was the one who spotted her talent. That little sniveling piece of crap Carlson didn’t help curry her talent to the point where she could helm her own show; he was just fine having her as a subordinate. Olbermann saw she could be more than that. Give him credit for it.

    In short, haters gonna hate and keep on hatin’, but the fact of the matter is that Keith Olbermann brought MSNBC the first and only sustained ratings success it has ever had, and when the network decided he was too much trouble to keep satisfying and let him leave, its fortunes went with him. Too bad for them they were so shortsighted.

  38. savefarris Says:

    First of all, Keith Olbermann is only a “raging egomaniacal sociopath” in the eyes of his haters

    … and ESPN
    … and Fox Sports
    … and CNN
    … and MSNBC
    … and NBC Sports
    … and Current.

    At this point, We have enough evidence to scientifically conclude that Keith is *NOT* the easiest guy in the world to deal with.

    but the fact of the matter is that Keith Olbermann brought MSNBC the first and only sustained ratings success it has ever had

    Easy there, Hoss!! Let’s re-examine our use of the word “success”, shall we? Even at Olbermann’s height, he was still getting crushed 2:1 by O’Reilly on a nightly basis. Granted, that’s better than Chris “10:1” Hayes. But “We Suck Less!” isn’t the juggernaut you seem to remember it being.

  39. First of all, Keith Olbermann is only a “raging egomaniacal sociopath” in the eyes of his haters

    … and ESPN
    … and Fox Sports
    … and CNN
    … and MSNBC
    … and NBC Sports
    … and Current.

    At this point, We have enough evidence to scientifically conclude that Keith is *NOT* the easiest guy in the world to deal with.

    Farris, it’s obviously not Olbermann, it’s the rest of the world.

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