The series receives absolutely no promotion on the news channel whose brand is built on the Beltway bona fides of Rachel Maddow and Morning Joe. Andrea Mitchell is never going to say: “Thanks, Secretary Clinton. Now, here’s what’s happening in Wabash Correctional.” Sister network Bravo foists “Housewives of Wherever” on NBC’s “Today” with synergistic zeal, but the best bang “Lockup” has ever received was a segment on “Oprah,” not in the NBC family.
But it is a ratings bonanza, a prime-time juggernaut, even after a decade.
“ ‘Lockup’ just doesn’t need help,” says MSNBC’s long-form vice president, Scott Hooker. “It has proven it’s something that can succeed on its own. People know it is there.”
On the noisy MSNBC/Fox News/CNN battlefield, MSNBC wins on this one front. The show has become such a phenomenon that its schedulers can’t help running it hour upon hour upon hour.
For the year to date, in the valued 25-to-54 age group, “Lockup” averages 263,000 viewers, compared with, for example, 189,000 for MSNBC’s “The Chris Matthews Show.”
In Washington, repeats of “Lockup” draw more 25-to-54-year-olds than live newscasts on the other cable channels. In the MSNBC fly zone, where cuss words from Mark Halperin create dust storms, the profane aggression of “Lockup” provides a reliable ratings uplift. And “Lockup” has morphed into next-generation iterations: “Lockup: Raw” (a making-of series), “Lockup: World Tour” (foreign jails) and “Life After Lockup” (post-release).
Look at The Washington Post’s Saturday prime-time TV grid. Only TVLand’s three-hour “Everybody Loves Raymond” block rivals “Lockup’s” lock on every half-hour. Beyond the grid, the show runs until 5 a.m. A taped series, it thrives on the repeat viewership of years-old episodes.
The “Lockup” Facebook page lit up on Saturday, May 7, when the series was bumped for Osama bin Laden coverage.
“The idiot is dead,” fumed one fan, “put my show on.”
Another responded: “Last week was that stupid wedding i means really!!! who cares put our show on!!!”
On the other hand, when Cairo erupted one day this winter, Fox News and CNN continued their live coverage through the following Saturday night. MSNBC flipped to “Lockup”— and attracted twice the viewers.
Caught in the middle is MSNBC’s Hooker. He wants to deliver the show to the fans he knows are expecting it while deferring to news decisions. “There are difficult calls to be made,” he says. “Sometimes we feel great. Other times, not so great. It can be tricky.”
The phenomenon defies MSNBC’s business model: a line-extension amortizing the expense of its NBC parent. NBC doesn’t even generate “Lockup.” Los Angeles-based 44 Blue Productions handles all filming and post-editing. (44 Blue was in town this year for its reality pilot “Potomac Fever.”) MSNBC’s reliance on 44 Blue represents the greatest amount of outsourcing by a news channel in TV today, possibly ever.