MSNBC is sucking wind. As noted in a New York Times piece, it’s suffering a bruising in the ratings around the clock: Rachel Maddow in the third quarter of 2014 had her worst showing ever, while “Morning Joe” has been losing to CNN, Ronan Farrow’s daytime show has yet to gain traction and so on. A malaise all around.
Phil Griffin, the network’s president, made note of a general downturn in cable news: “This has been a tough year all around,” Griffin told the Times’s Bill Carter. “All three cable news channels are drawing a smaller combined audience than they were five years ago.” At the same time, Griffin said that the network needs to “evolve” and “adjust.”
Thing is, MSNBC has adjusted and evolved. It just hasn’t worked.
In fact, the network’s entire history is one of adjustment and evolution. Following its 1996 founding, MSNBC experimented with various mixes of breaking news, analysis and politics coverage as a way of competing against Fox News and CNN. Over time, it seized on progressive politics as its mission and in 2010 launched its “Lean Forward” ad campaign. “We’ve taken on CNN and we beat them,” Griffin told staffers at the time. “Now it’s time to take on Fox.”
Two years later, it appeared that the formula had succeeded. The 2012 presidential campaign pitting Mitt Romney against President Obama marked something of a high-water mark for the “Lean Forward” network, a viewership feat that itself warranted the notice of a full-on evaluation in the New York Times: “The Anti-Fox Gains Ground.”
“We’re closer to Fox than we’ve ever been,” Griffin told Brian Stelter, who has since then moved on to become a CNN host. “All of this is great for 2013, 2014 to keep building.”
Instead, MSNBC has kept eroding. Griffin’s expression of proximity to Fox News now looks quaint. Consider that for the third quarter of this year, the repeat showing of Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” more than doubled the 25-to-54-year-old audience of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” (264,000 to 126,000).
So, how to account for MSNBC’s ratings decline? Time for speculation. As the progressive network, MSNBC is tied closely to the Obama administration, whose very own ratings have experienced a steep decline since the 2012 elections. Just after his victory over Romney in 2012, President Obama had an approval rating of 53 percent, according to Gallup. Early last month, that approval number hit its all-time low of 38 percent. As people tune out President Obama, perhaps they’re tuning out MSNBC as well.
Whatever the culprit in MSNBC’s undoing, a lack of diversity certainly isn’t to blame. The network in June launched José Díaz-Balart’s morning show on the network, and the host made news by simultaneously translating a conversation in Spanish with an interviewee. Elsewhere in the daytime lineup, there are three African American hosts (Tamron Hall, Touré and Joy Reid) a twenty-something (Ronan Farrow) and a Burmese American (Alex Wagner). Black civil rights advocate Al Sharpton anchors the 6 p.m. shift. Prime time, though, is white (Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell).
If MSNBC continues to crater, the cause of diversifying anchor desks at the country’s broadcasters could take a step backward.