MSNBC rating slide continues as midterms approach

With about three weeks to go before a big midterm election, and with Barack Obama’s progressive agenda in danger of getting rejected, one would think that this would be a banner time for politics on TV. After all, we have Senate races going down to the wire, and at least one major Cabinet office open. The 2016 presidential season hasn’t quite started, but players are making preliminary moves. Interest in politics, especially among Obama backers, should be peaking at the moment.

Instead, it appears to be approaching a nadir. The New York Times reports that MSNBC, which offers almost an entire schedule of shows catering to the Obama agenda, has seen its ratings plummet:

Rachel Maddow, the biggest star on the MSNBC cable network, just posted her lowest quarterly ratings results ever.

“Morning Joe,” MSNBC’s signature morning program, scored its second-lowest quarterly ratings, reaching an average of just 87,000 viewers in the key news demographic group.

And “Ronan Farrow Daily,” the network’s heavily promoted new afternoon show, which stars a 26-year-old Rhodes Scholar with a high-profile Hollywood lineage, has been largely a dud.

Though it has mostly happened quietly, which may be a comment on the cable network’s larger status in the media landscape, MSNBC has seen its ratings hit one of the deepest skids in its history, with the recently completed third quarter of 2014 generating some record lows.

The NYT’s Bill Carter suggests a couple of reasons for the skid. Noting that CNN’s ratings have picked up, he posits that the big stories of late — Ebola, ISIS, and so on — may have viewers tuning out and looking for straight reporting. However, MSNBC has been all over the Ferguson story since the shooting of Michael Brown, a story which plays strongly to their core viewership. The Secret Service scandal relates directly to the safety of Barack Obama, plus it gives reporters a chance to demagogue about Republican critics of the Secret Service, too.

So the issue isn’t a lack of content. It seems to be more a lack of interest. One unnamed executive suggested that some of it might be how stale and predictable MSNBC has become:

“In terms of Rachel, everybody knows every night what she’s going to say,” he said. “The network just doesn’t surprise you.”

That may be true of most of its lineup, but much less so for Morning Joe. Even that show has lost viewers, which Carter notes is a big red flag for the entire network. Phil Griffin pointed to a decline in cable-news viewing overall and chalked it up to apathy. But MSNBC isn’t really a cable news network either; Griifin himself once said that it’s not designed for breaking news, and in another venue said that it’s about forming, serving, and promoting an identity. The strategy was to attract people to that identity and make sure they stick around.

This looks like an identity crisis, in a way. As the Obama and progressive agendas become less popular, fewer people want to participate in that group identity. And if that’s true at MSNBC, how true will it be at the ballot box in three weeks? This lack of enthusiasm for and among progressives looks like a bad portent for Democrats in the midterms, especially since their strategy in this cycle has been to stoke the base rather than reach out to the center.