Has MSNBC finally had enough of leaning forward into a full-tilt decline in ratings? Despite some suggestions that the cable channel’s carriage fees immunizes it from the ratings issue, it’s apparently not enough for the new president of NBC News. Poor ratings may spell the end of three shows, two of which appear in the channel’s ailing prime-time lineup, according to Mediaite’s Andrew Kirell:
Mediaite has learned that Lack is now beginning to take an active role in the herculean task of trying to right that left-leaning ship: Specifically, Lack is now often attending MSNBC chief Phil Griffin‘s 11:30 a.m. editorial meetings; and, to quote one witness, Lack regularly appears “underwhelmed” with the story pitches.
Even more daunting for the staffs of three struggling MSNBC programs, Lack has requested evidence that their shows remain viable.
A couple of weeks ago, the executive producers of Now with Alex Wagner, The Ed Show, and All In with Chris Hayes were told to prepare “sizzle reels” of the best their programs have to offer. Theoretically, this exercise will help them identify what works best on their respective shows but, in reality, our sources say, any or all of these shows could soon be on the chopping block. The senior staffs of all three programs, we are told, are now concerned that their days are numbered.
The only surprise from that list is that it’s rather short. None of the three have resulted in engaged viewerships, not even in the youth demo for which two of the three are aimed. That failure has been so well documented over the last couple of years that the question isn’t whether MSNBC will be making changes, but just how far the changes will go.
The list does have a curious omission. At least implied in the Mediaite report, Politics Nation with Al Sharpton isn’t under the same level of scrutiny — yet. However, a new report from National Review’s Jillian Kay Melchior might change that. Sharpton has featured union officials after having received hefty donations to his charity National Action Network, itself under fire for its questionable practices:
Since Politics Nation debuted on MSNBC on August 29, 2011, Al Sharpton’s nonprofit National Action Network has collected more than $2.38 million in contributions from unions, according to Department of Labor records. Meanwhile, Sharpton has often used his show to promote pro-labor viewpoints, also inviting union leadership on as guests. …
Lee Saunders sits on the board of National Action Network, and he’s also president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, which has given Sharpton’s nonprofit $541,500 in donations since Politics Nation launched, according to Department of Labor records. Saunders has appeared twice on Politics Nation in the last 16 months. …
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has also appeared twice in the past 16 months. AFT’s headquarters and New York Local 2 have given Sharpton’s nonprofit $445,000 since August 29, 2011, records show.
Service Employees International Union’s president, George Gresham, has also made appearances on Sharpton’s show. The union has given National Action Network $436,133 over the past four years, the Department of Labor reports.
That may edge uncomfortably toward payola, a major legal issue for broadcasters. Payola is when access to broadcast time is traded for undisclosed payments and/or favors to either show hosts or producers. It’s serious enough that even when running a show for no pay, as we did with NARN broadcasts, every one of us had to sign statements acknowledging the payola regulations and promising to abide by them.
Even aside from that question, the confluence of access and cash into Sharpton’s organization will raise red flags at MSNBC. After all, the channel suspended former prime-time host Keith Olbermann over donations he made to political candidates to whom he gave air time. In that case, the money went the other direction, and there was no sense at all that Olbermann profited personally from the arrangements. This looks much, much worse, and is on a much higher scale than Olbermann’s supposed ethics issues at the cable channel.
So it may be that Lack will have to look for four hours of programming. How likely is it that he will push MSNBC to the right, or at least the middle, while doing so? The Associated Press said in March not very, and for good reason. They get their carriage fees on the basis of being the anti-Fox News Channel:
The shift in focus during the day has led some fans to fear MSNBC may abandon its liberal focus altogether.
That’s very unlikely. Despite the ratings, analyst SNL Kagan predicts MSNBC will earn $509 million in revenue this year. While that’s below Fox News Channel ($2.18 billion) and CNN ($1.16 billion), that would still be slightly up from $501 million in 2014, Kagan said.
The financial health is largely due to long-term deals with cable and satellite operators to carry MSNBC, made when the network sold itself as a counterbalance to Fox News, said Derek Baine, Kagan analyst. Bad ratings depress advertising prices, and while they would hurt MSNBC’s future if they persist, the advertising is not as important as the carriage deals.
Considering Lack spent much of his first go-round at NBC News struggling to find an identity for MSNBC, the idea of searching for a new one is no doubt unappealing.
Not as unappealing as their current lineup, though. I’d expect at least a move back toward rationality and credibility. If so, then Sharpton should be the first change.