The Conversation

Three Possible Explanations for MSNBC's Ratings Woes

With MSNBC's ratings in the dumps, various explanations are being offered as to why this is happening to a network that, just last fall, was challenging Fox. Let's consider the three most popular explanations.

One possible explanation is that progressives are dispirited by President Obama's scandal problems. This is angle taken by Deadline Hollywood in their report on MSNBC's downturn. However, the scandals (excepting Benghazi) are relatively recent. MSNBC's ratings have been on a slide since the election.

Writing at Salon, Alex Pareene suggets an alternative: Progressives just don't show up to support progressive media. He writes:

Perhaps there just isn’t a huge, permanent, year-round liberal audience for political news and discussion. Which is effectively all MSNBC does, because political discussion is cheap as hell, and gets good ratings when certain periods and certain personalities align. Young liberals tune in during election years. The rest of the time they keep up with the news online (or on “The Daily Show”) and spend their evenings watching actual TV. Like, “Game of Thrones” and stuff.

I think Pareene is on to something. In 2008 and again in 2012, many of Obama's young voters were electing a likable personality who they felt cared about them. Many of those younger voters may not have had a big political knowledge base to start with. Politics wasn't really their focus. Once the election was over (and in a way that satisfied them, i.e. Obama was re-elected), they just lost interest.

Put another way, if President Obama's triumph relied on a lot of low information voters, it should not be a big surprise that they were not interested in MSNBC's brand of 24/7 progressive talking points. There are some progressives who like that, but only a few hundred thousand a day it seems.

There's a third explanation for MSNBC's woes that ties into this. Here again, let me go back to Pareene who writes "Fox is fine because it is one part tabloid news (Arias!) and one part right-wing anger-stoking machine." Pareene is on to something though the point is overwhelmed by his partisan bile.

The underlying truth is this: Fox offers viewers more than right-wing opinion. Fox's #2 show is The Five, which is a View-style talk show with various opinions and a light tone. They have Red Eye which is a comedy show riffing on news stories. And they have Bill O'Reilly in prime time--who is as libertarian as he is conservative--doing regular game show segments and featuring Dennis Miller rants.

Fox has entertainment value and a sense of humor. They aim the programming at middle America not for elite Salons in DC in New York. The same cannot be said of MSNBC. Their hosts are either street brawlers--O'Donnell, Sharpton and Shultz--or nerdy wonks--Maddow, Hayes and Ezra Klein. Viewers have a choice between pugnacious and pompous. (Chris Matthews manages to be both at once.) How appealing are those two choices to people who aren't already hidebound progressives? The ratings seem to be giving us an answer to the question: Not very.

There are obviously some significant differences between TV and print but it is worth noting that traditional newspapers and successful news sites--Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Breitbart News, etc.--all offer more than just politics. Diversity actually does help hold people's interest. Fox clearly understands that better than MSNBC. 

So that's three possible explanations for MSNBC's troubles: One that progressives are dispirited. Two that young progressives don't much care about politics per se. And three that MSNBC has a narrow, unappealing lineup. If I had to guess I'd say they all factor into MSNBC's current decline, but probably in reverse order of importance.


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