MSNBC’s Politics Conundrum

In a must read, the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Joe Flint write about how newly minted NBC Universal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde isn’t thrilled with how MSNBC’s reliance on politics programming impacts ratings when non-political news takes the forefront.

Mr. Conde is undertaking a review of NBCUniversal’s news operations that includes an analysis of MSNBC’s audience trends, according to people familiar with the matter. He wants to establish a brighter line between daytime news coverage and evening opinion analysis, they say.

This is nothing new for cable news or MSNBC in particular. That network has suffered for decades from this particular non-politics affliction and watched as rivals skyrocket in the ratings while its numbers don’t.

If you believe the Journal story, Conde is keeping his options open in ways that might seem surprising.

Mr. Conde has moved cautiously. People familiar with his plans say he is still evaluating key executives, including MSNBC President Phil Griffin, and is unlikely to make any big executive changes until after the 2020 presidential elections, if at all.

And yet, despite “moving cautiously” and being concerned about ratings trends that indicate MSNBC’s brand is hurt by non-political stories, there’s this…

Mr. Conde has made some big changes. He tapped Joy Reid to fill the 7 p.m. slot on MSNBC that was vacated by Chris Matthews; her show got off to a strong start, though it has seen some audience erosion in recent weeks. He approved an overhaul of MSNBC’s daytime lineup that added an additional hour to Nicolle Wallace’s “Deadline: White House” program and moved Chuck Todd’s weekday show from 5 p.m. to 1 p.m.

Conde just signed off on a lineup change that increases politics emphasis by cementing a dayside lineup of politically opinionated anchors or politics centric hosts.

Why is this a problem? Because being nimble enough to be taken credibly for non-political stories (and an increase in viewership) means either a) having a reputation for covering such stories (which MSNBC does not) and/or b) having a dayside lineup of talent that isn’t wedded to politics that they’ll be taken seriously in non-political situations; the latter of which MSNBC is left wanting. Consider:

Kasie Hunt – Congressional Correspondent who talks politics all the time. Prior to that covered the 2016 primaries.

Hallie Jackson – NBC Chief White House Correspondent. Prior to that covered the 2016 primaries.

Andrea Mitchell – Political maven whose once apparent refusal to cover a “watercooler tabloid” breaking news story forced MSNBC to interrupt her show with another talent to take over for a few minutes to cover it instead before handing it back to her.

Chuck Todd – Meet The Press host and NBC News Political Director

Katy Tur – Gained fame covering the Trump campaign in 2016. Wrote a book about the experience.

Nicolle Wallace – Just expanded her politics show to two hours and politics is all she’s known for at MSNBC.

I might as well add Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi to this list because, though they cover business news and used to be known as business anchors at one time, the thing they do which gets them the most attention now is their political opinions.

So, given a lineup like this, how the heck does Conde expect things to change in the ratings for MSNBC and not have the network be quite so politically dependent or opinionated when he just signed off on a lineup which is the antithesis of that?

You want to bring in non-politics street cred to MSNBC? The first thing you have to do is change this lineup. All other considerations are moot until/unless this happens. Changing the format but leaving the lineup intact won’t work because NBC and MSNBC have spent years poisoning the well for these individuals by being so single minded on them covering politics that this is why people tune in to see them now. They don’t tune in to hear them talk about COVID or Forest Fires.

Remember, this is the network which uses all its opinion hosts front and center during election coverage. That would have to change if Mr. Conde is serious about a “brighter line” between news coverage and opinion programming.

And because this reversal would be too bitter a pill to swallow, I don’t see it happening. Ever. So I don’t see Mr. Conde fixing this non-political story ratings issue because it’s become institutionalized at that network. What I do expect to happen is Mr. Conde realizing he’s wasting his time and give up on the idea. Just as previous head honchos at NBC have over the years.

3 Responses to “MSNBC’s Politics Conundrum”

  1. “it’s become institutionalized at that network.”
    It’s institutionalized at every media outlet. I find it quite discouraging.

  2. Kermode Bear Says:

    I would love some non-political, non-partisan coverage. Never going to happen though…

  3. […] ICN: CNN’s politics problem has become institutionalized. […]

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