Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Liberal Line Up

In case you haven't heard, MSNBC -- which has always had some pretty shaky ratings but can usually point to one or two juicy plums in their book -- has been suffering miserably since their most recent prime time shakeup:
Amid the cable news network’s declining ratings, insiders tell TheWrap changes are coming soon and “everything is on the table”
When President Obama was reelected in 2012, MSNBC was “leaning forward” and smiling wide as Obama 2.0 propelled it to record ratings and a firm grasp on the No. 2 spot in cable news.
Over two years later, the network has fallen backwards. January ratings revealed double-digit declines compared with January, 2014 in all ratings measurements. During the day, MSNBC was down 20 percent in viewers and 37 percent in the advertising-coveted 25-54 demo. In primetime, it fell 23 percent in viewers and 39 percent in demo.

The primary exhibit for this is the most excellent offering of Chris Hayes, "All In". His conversational interview style is well suited to deep exploration of a topic and when he has the bit between his teeth, he will uncover nuances and twists others might miss.

Which makes him precisely wrong for prime time. His previous spot, weekend mornings from 8-10 AM, was perfect for this kind of introspection: people who had the TV on were eating breakfast or catching up on reading, and the TV was pretty much background noise, but stories sunk in and his style drew a pretty surprising audience given the time period. Prime time is for making noise, something Hayes is distinctly uncomfortable with.

The weekday daytime line up is doing even worse: Ronan Farrow recorded just 26,000 viewers on day last month, but he still seems uncomfortable in front of the camera. Joy Reid, who is eminently watchable -- and one of the first people to link to this blog back in 2004 -- has suffered in ratings, too. 

And then there's Morning Joe.

Network president Phil Griffin gambled that his target demographic, young adult viewers, would appreciate discourse over diatribe, and if that reflected in the ratings, it would make sense. But in the target 25-59 demographic, the news has been worse than the overall ratings decline, as noted above. 

Given the Charlie Hebdo events in January, it's no surprise that CNN surged ahead. They have the most extensive foreign correspondency, and when you come right down to it, it's either CNN or MSNBC for actual news programming. FOX doesn't even try, preferring to yell at you. You can't really begrudge people for wanting reporting on news.

So what's MSNBC to do? Well, it's not all gloom and doom long term for the network. Recently, MSNBC launched a digital network called "The Shift" to give reporters and hosts a safer platform to experiment with programming. 

Question: Had you heard of this? I sure hadn't but then I'm in a different mind set these days. It seems that the Shift will act as a minor league team that can funnel talent to the big network when a host or guest can be slotted in. 

Not a terrible idea, mind you, but Griffin (or his successor) has holes to fill now. Farrow and Reid are rumored to be out the door and Morning Joe is hanging on by its fingernails, and apart from shuttling in the egregious Luke "He's Not Your Father" Russert, the options are severely limited. 

If you want a clue as to what direction they'll go, pay close attention to the guest lists on the prime time shows. MSNBC has suddenly rediscovered Stephanie Miller and John Fugelsang, and here's where I think they might make the right choice.

FOX has the old viewership locked up. These are the folks who spend all day and night watching TV while they watch the illusion they had of the world around them crumble. FOX is a comforting beacon of bullshit to them and it's not a stretch to say it's crack for them (Meth might be the more appropriate metaphor). 

CNN has the heavy hitting names: Wolf, ACoop, even Morgan Spurlock has been holding his own (hint, MSNBC!). Apart from Erin Burnett, that's a really strong five hours or so of programming.

And then look at Comedy Central. The tandem of The Nightly and Daily Shows has a solid foot in the very demographic that MSNBC seeks. The Nightly Show is basically a one-topic panel show that seems to be working, so it's not news analysis that's the problem.

And it's doing this while cable TV ratings have been slipping overall (down 16% in January alone, thanks in large part to streaming services like Netflix).

The clues are all there for MSNBC: there's a strategy to poach viewers from the prime time lineup of Comedy Central and win back some of the news junkies maybe by taking a lighter touch to the news while still getting the story out.

It wouldn't be Maddow's first run at teh funny. She and Lizz Winstead had one of the best programs on the lamented Air America (when Air America was all topical comedy), combining Winstead's pithy snark and Maddow's insightful analysis (as well as "TV's Frank" Conniff doing bits.)

So here's a thought to salvage the schedule immediately: Fire Joe Scarborough. Just fire him. Put Mika IcanneverspellherenamesoIwon'ttry in the Farrow slot and team up Farrow and Reid. Give either Stephanie Miller or John Fugelsang the morning slot, and team the other one for two hours with Rachel Maddow. 

If more people trust the Daily Show than any of the news networks (they do), and if the Daily and Nightly Shows can pull ratings at least as good as MSNBC (they do), then there really is no reason not to distinguish your news coverage not with analytics but by putting a humanistic face to the stories your covering. 

Just a suggestion, Phil. Call me. I'm a great host.