The Wrap’s Jordan Chariton writes about the “new” MSNBC daytime through rose colored glasses and with a big assist from a selective memory infected Cenk Uygur…
In the fall of 2011, MSNBC was riding high.
Occupy Wall Street had ignited a sleeping giant, bringing disenchanted Americans of all ages to Zucotti Park and cities across the country to rail against corporate greed and capitalism gone wild. The movement, mixed with the buildup to a pivotal presidential election, led to record ratings for MSNBC, which had firmly become the media megaphone for progressiveness.
I would know–I was there.
As a booking producer from 2011-2012, I saw firsthand the excitement swirling around the newsroom as anchors hosted from the protest scene; the energy behind an election with very high stakes.
Three years later, MSNBC took a chainsaw to its daytime lineup, canceling three opinion programs last Thursday–and will soon tinker with its primetime lineup–evolving itself to become more of an NBC News-lite.
A decision that will likely doom the network to a permanent third place finish.
“Being progressive isn’t the problem, it’s the solution,” former MSNBC anchor and host of The Young Turks Cenk Uygur told TheWrap about the “Lean Forward” network.
I’m going to be talking in shorthand here because three years ago I wrote extensively about MSNBC’s POV metamorphosis. If you aren’t familiar with that deep dive, I suggest you read it and the two appendices first.
I will stipulate to Charlton’s view of the inner workings of MSNBC at that time and the mood generated by Occupy Wall Street. He was there. I wasn’t.
Having stipulated that, I have to ask the obvious question:
What happened to that momentum? Occupy died out years before MSNBC cratered in daytime. Chariton essentially makes the argument that MSNBC fumbled a golden opportunity and that it will only get worse by reverting to straight news. Well, ok…but how do you reconcile the fact that MSNBC “fumbled” it away while at the same time it pivoted hard to the left in dayside; the very thing Uygur says is “the solution”?
I will not argue that going Progressive was a bad idea. The numbers don’t convincingly validate that statement. MSNBC’s Progressive turn in primetime worked from 2008-2011. It worked because it had Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell each doing a different take on Progressivism with a different voice – Olbermann with his take no prisoners fire and brimstone, Maddow with her erudite wonky approach, and O’Donnell coming down somewhere in between the two. It worked.
Here’s where it didn’t work…extending progressive POV analysis all over dayside. It didn’t work with Martin Bashir. It didn’t work with Dylan Ratigan who was more populist than progressive. It didn’t work with Alex Wagner. It didn’t work well enough with Ed Schultz. It sure as hell didn’t work with Ronan Farrow, Joy Reid, or The Cycle. It might have worked with Cenk Uygur had that relationship been given a chance to really blossom (we’ll never know for sure).
The point, which both Uygur and (to a lesser extent) Chariton fail to acknowledge, is that the record throughout MSNBC’s history has been consistently clear. Despite three POV analysis attempts launched by MSNBC since 2007, Primetime was always the driving force behind MSNBC’s ratings success. It’s never been dayside. MSNBC’s Total Day numbers went up because Primetime drove them up. They never went up because dayside drove them up. Certainly not by itself.
A longtime network insider isn’t buying into the hard news pivot either: “They’re trying something that’s already been tried 15 years ago; I’m skeptical whether it will work,” the individual told TheWrap.
At last week’s network town hall, MSNBC president Phil Griffin answered a question on why executives were again embracing news. “What makes you think this is going to change anything?” one staffer asked.
Fair points, both. There’s nothing in MSNBC’s history to suggest going back to news is going to lead MSNBC to ratings nirvana. But then that’s not the point of going back to news. The point of going back to news is to stabilize MSNBC dayside, to get it back to where it was before it lurched POV.
It’s a holding action, nothing more. Eventually we will see MSNBC return to more news-less shows from 3-5 (5 is already dedicated to politics with Chuck Todd). But that’s for later, when NBC has had time to figure out what it wants to do with the 3-5 block.
But to understand why MSNBC’s hard news shift won’t work, it’s necessary to look at what got it to this point. In the 2000’s, MSNBC had no real identity.
“They had Scarborough, a conservative pushing Republican talking points, in the morning for three hours,” Uygur continued. “They had Chris Matthews who shifts in the wind – thought George Bush belonged on Mount Rushmore and then had a thrill up his leg with Barack Obama.”
Then Keith Olbermann lit a fire under 30 Rock executives’ seats, all-but rejecting the segments produced for him at 8 p.m., going renegade to become the media opponent to President Bush.
Here is where the rose colored glasses come in to play, for it incorrectly and inaccurately minimizes the impact of Morning Joe during that period. Morning Joe killed off American Morning after CNN tried a revolving door of permanent hosts and co-hosts with no success at gaining ground on Morning Joe’s ratings success.
We can have an argument about whether Morning Joe is now the right show to have on MSNBC’s air. Indeed, numerous people have written at length that Morning Joe ain’t what it used to be. There is some truth to that argument. But let’s not conveniently ignore an unpalatable truth for Progressives; Morning Joe used to be a key part of MSNBC’s success. It had developed its own brand and for years it was a successful one in the ratings.
After President Obama was reelected, MSNBC saw a ratings dip like other media outlets. The drop evolved to falling off a cliff, as 2014’s third quarter was the network’s lowest-rated quarter in seven years; it’s total 2014 numbers bumped the network back to number 3 in the advertising-coveted 25-54 demo.
“Their strategy for developing talent has broken down and after Olbermann left, they had a real hard time trying to mint new anchors that would hold on to the audiences Olbermann and Maddow had pioneered,” Erig Deggans, NRP TV critic, told TheWrap.
No argument here. This is the reason POV failed on dayside – why it has repeatedly failed on dayside. It’s also why primetime for MSNBC ain’t what it used to be. You have to have the right people to pull it off.
This falls entirely on Phil Griffin’s shoulders. His idea for POV has been to basically clone Maddow wherever possible. Chris Hayes? Clone. Farrow and Reid? Clone. Harris-Perry? Clone. Even Kornacki falls more in the Maddow mold than the Olbermann one.
This is what killed POV for MSNBC and dragged down dayside…sameness. Take a look at FNC’s lineup. You will be hard pressed to find clones of anyone there. They may all (mostly) talk about the same things but they all (mostly) approach them differently with different voices.
But the network actually did develop one personality that resonated during the post-Olbermann era. Ed Schultz was doing well for the channel at 8 p.m., drawing close to a million viewers in the final quarter of 2012, nearing what Olbermann averaged in his heyday.
This is true but only to a point. Schultz did carve out a niche no-one else at MSNBC was going after. But Schultz’s appeal was limited and he had issues. Furthermore, it’s an open question whether Schultz would have been able to hold on to that million viewer average in the long run. We’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is that Schultz didn’t fit the Griffin mold for POV anchors.
All of these moves had one thing in common: short-term thinking instead of a long term vision; one where MSNBC would stake its claim as the unabashed media champion for liberalism–a network that would give you the news, but also fight with its audience for progress.
“They didn’t know if their mandate was to be progressive, to be objective anchors or to be just pro-Democrats,” Uygur said. “Now they are going to have a conservative on for three hours in the morning, then be a second rate CNN in the daytime and then have some progressives at night. What in the world is that brand?”
Well actually Cenk, MSNBC is going to have the format that it had when it knocked off CNN for second place. Because that’s what MSNBC looked like from 2007-2011, excluding the two short lived dayside forays into POV analysis.
Does that mean MSNBC is headed back up now? Absolutely not. It’s not a given. I’m highly skeptical. My skepticism is based on the fact that Primetime is still a problem. And without Primetime to lead the way MSNBC as a whole is going to be stuck. As long as Hayes is there as the anti lead-in to Maddow, MSNBC is going to be in trouble in primetime. If Morning Joe can’t return to where it was a few years ago, MSNBC is going to be in trouble in mornings.
This is a partial reset. It doesn’t mean this is what MSNBC will look like in two years time. It does mean that MSNBC has finally realized that its latest attempt at POV analysis in dayside has been an abject failure. And that’s all it means.