For those who are interested in cable news machinations and the painfully prolonged demise of the present iteration of MSNBC, Politico’s Dylan Byers has a must-read report that sheds light on the left-leaning network’s problems and what NBCUniversal executives think might resolve them.
For weeks, media reporters have foreshadowed major adjustments to MSNBC’s lineup. At the end of February, the network axed two midday programs hosted by Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow, but that was only the beginning of the great cull.
Al Sharpton’s Politics Nation, currently anchoring a block of programming that is dominated by straight news shows on both cable and the networks, is expected to be relegated to weekends. Presumably, to completely terminate Sharpton’s MSNBC contract would be to spark National Action Network demonstrations and a call for a boycott of NBC’s sponsors. Similarly, All In host Chris Hayes has been consistently underperforming in the hour he hosts at 8 p.m. Eastern, and his program is also on the chopping block. Only the network’s flagship shows, Morning Joe and The Rachel Maddow Show, are safe from elimination.
But there is apparently also a philosophical debate ongoing among NBC executives about what went so wrong at MSNBC. The network was not always an ideological pole on the cable dial, but it was never a ratings powerhouse as a general interest network. For a time, MSNBC’s unabashedly liberal identity created a unique brand for the network that attracted a loyal and relatively substantial core audience.
“MSNBC’s defenders will often argue that the network’s woes are due to Americans’ waning interest in politics and liberals’ disenchantment with President Barack Obama,” Byers wrote. “This argument usually ignores Fox News’ sustained success — it is and has long been the No. 1 cable news channel, through administrations Republican and Democratic.”
He’s right, and the NBC executives Byers spoke with seem to know he’s right. It’s not enough to shake up the programming lineup, they say. It is necessary at this point to reform the entire enterprise and its mission.
“The plan is to re-imagine what the channel is,” one high-level NBCUniversal insider with knowledge of the network’s plans said, “because the current lineup is a death wish.”
“MSNBC got boring,” one former NBCUniversal executive said. “You’ll hear a lot of people talking about it being too far left, too political — all that matters is that it’s entertaining.”
This is right on the money, although “boring” is perhaps a misleading diagnosis of what ails MSNBC. What is perhaps more accurate is that much of MSNBC’s programming has become predictable, and predictability saps any program of entertainment value.
This unnamed executive who accused MSNBC of staleness identified a great lesson for everyone in the news-talk business. This is the entertainment business, and those aspiring hosts and commentators who forget that or intentionally refuse to acknowledge this condition almost invariably fail.
Yes, there is a journalistic element to hosting a news-talk program, and staid professionalism is one way in which a host can engender trust in the viewing audience. Without trust, the cable or radio talk show host will lose the audience. But, as countless liberal hosts have demonstrated over the years, the audience will also tune out if you take yourself too seriously.
Air America, the liberal radio network that was designed to make the airwaves safe for the left, died a premature death largely as a result of the fact that its hosts were simply not entertaining. The network’s flagship host, the former comedian Al Franken, became far more interested in public policy than he was with maintaining his audience’s satisfaction. Perhaps in acknowledgment of his restlessness, Franken has found a second career as the junior U.S. Senator from Minnesota.
Maddow, another Air America veteran, derives her career’s longevity from the fact that she can entertain as well as inform, and she demonstrates these often conflicting talents on a regular basis. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, as well as their rotating cast of regulars, also refuse to be typecast. Because both hosts so often wander off their ideological reservations, the show they host has become appointment television. Their unpredictability (not to be confused with capriciousness) and visibility has turned both Scarborough and Brzezinski into opinion leaders.
When MSNBC rebrands itself and sheds its Obama campaign-derived “Lean Forward” thematic approach to audience retention, it should engage in that process with an eye toward compelling programming. That often means personality-driven shows. That likely means the network will have to invest heavily in new talent. Too often, network executives think this means expensive contracts with figures that already have significant name recognition and a built-in audience. The stakes are so high and the margin for error so small that networks often believe they cannot gamble on talent development. This approach to programming has failed as often as it has been tried, which is a lot.
Take a risk, MSNBC. Develop some fresh faces. Underbid in the process. But, most importantly, throw the audience a curveball once in a while. In this way, MSNBC might be able to reinvigorate its programming lineup and serve as something other than an uninspiring barometer of the state of progressive politics.