MSNBC’s Ratings Just Hit a New Low and That’s a Good Thing

The “lean forward” channel has fallen on its face. MSNBC‘s ratings in the third quarter of 2014 hit new lows even for established programs like Rachel Maddow.

Since the departure of Keith Olbermann, Maddow is MSNBC‘s biggest draw. But a NY Times review of the station’s third quarter ratings show Maddow posted “her lowest quarterly ratings ever.” An unnamed TV news executive told the NY Times, “In terms of Rachel, everybody knows every night what she’s going to say.”

Maddow was not alone in the race to the bottom. Ratings for Morning Joe were the second lowest ever for that program. And Chris Hayes had his worst quarter since 2009.

MSNBC’s President Phil Griffin blames the slide, in part, on an overall lack of interest in news. “All three cable news channels are drawing a smaller combined audience than they were five years ago,” he tells the Times. That’s true to some degree, with overall viewership at CNN and Fox also down 13% since 2009.

However the slide as MSNBC is especially dramatic. The Times reports that MSNBC averaged 392,000 key demo viewers per night in the first quarter of 2009. Last quarter that number was down to 125,000, representing a loss of two-thirds of their total audience.

Just last year network President Phil Griffin was profiled by the New Republic. At the time he was riding a surge of 2012 election viewers and predicted MSNBC might finally beat Fox News in the ratings in 2014. The New Republic added that, even if MSNBC failed to catch Fox, Griffin had, “created a thriving and lucrative liberal TV business, the long-sought answer to Fox News and conservative talk radio.”

The Times speculates several possible reasons for MSNBC‘s current slide including a string of recent stories–ISIS, Ebola, international news in general–which falls outside MSNBC‘s strengths. Other media observers have offered alternative explanations. In March, Dylan Byers at Politico connected it to President Obama. “Obama’s presidency has turned into a slog, and MSNBC isn’tcompelling. Prime time is just hours of what often seems like feignedoutrage,” Byers wrote. Last summer, I offered my own explanation for MSNBC‘s problems:

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

Is the problem at MSNBC predictability, an emphasis on opinion over fact, or perhaps a kind of Elliott-to-ET psychic connection with a very unpopular President? Take your pick. What is clear is that the promise of a left-wing rival for right-wing talk radio isn’t going very well.

This is an ongoing problem with the progressive project in general. The left is very good at offering bright, shiny hope to weary voters. Somewhere in the distance, down the road, around the corner–they always have a promising plan. But as good as the left is at promising it is not very good at delivering on those promises. What we get in reality are broken websites, broken promises, broken foreign policy followed by quiet chagrin at our own naïveté. “Yes we can,” sounded so good but the reality is more like, “let me explain.”

Leaning forward was always supposed to get us somewhere better; but, for about a year, most Americans don’t seem to think progressives have done a very good job. Maybe that’s why they’ve grown increasingly tired of the sales pitch on MSNBC. It’s an awkward reminder. There’s nothing worse than coming across a glossy brochure for a failed investment.


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