MSNBC ratings crater as NBC looks for new direction

Yes, yes, it’s easy to laugh at the travails of MSNBC, but there are some important lessons from its audience collapse. Deadline Hollywood detailed the destruction yesterday, using a Dickensian motif in comparing MSNBC to Fox. FNC not only crushes its competition overall, but it demolished both CNN and MSNBC in the target demo — 25-54 year olds.

MSNBC during the Olbermann era believed it had a claim on the younger demographic, especially with the rise of progressive populism in the middle of the second Bush term. The Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina energized the progressive movement, especially on college campuses, and MSNBC positioned itself to sweep up a new generation of politically active viewers. Critics noted that Fox, while leading in the ratings overall, skewed older, and would eventually fall, both with advertisers and with overall ratings as viewer loyalty built up their progressive rival.

That strategy didn’t pan out so well:

Talk about a tale of two cable news networks. With its 53rd consecutive quarter total audience win, Fox News Channel saw a 10% primetime rise among adults 25-54 in first-quarter 2015 over last year. In fact, with 321,000 on average among the 25-54s in primetime, Fox News thrashed rivals CNN (187,000) and MSNBC (132,000) with more news demo viewers than the other two combined, according to Nielsen.

In fact, Fox is almost tripling MSNBC in the demo for prime time, but it’s not just the demo. As Deadline notes, MSNBC’s prime-time lineup has suffered an unprecedented collapse in viewership across the board:

Contrast that to the fate of the NBCUniversal-owned MSNBC, which  not only saw a 39% drop in the demo compared to Q1 2014 but its worst quarterly result in the category since Q2 2005. If that almost decade-old result wasn’t enough of a blow, and rising CNN’s fourth consecutive win over MSNBC in prime didn’t cut deep enough, take a look at the gutting the cabler newser’s nighttime offerings are suffering.

With just 145,000 viewers among the 25-54s on average over the December 29, 2014 – March 29, 2105 period, the once-proud flagship The Rachel Maddow Show hit an all-time quarter low with the worst result since its September 8, 2008 launch. Not only is Maddow down 46% in the demo, but her 9 PM show is also down 19% in total viewers. Fellow primetime show All In With Chris Hayes and Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell fell to their worst quarterly demo ratings since their respective 2013 and 2010 debuts. O’Donnell’s show also had its lowest total quarterly viewership results. And 7 PM’s Hardball With Chris Matthews had its lowest-rated quarter in the demo since 2Q 2005 with an average viewership of 126,000.

I’d guess that Huffington Post gets more than 126,000 page views an hour during a good portion of the day.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin had already come under pressure for a major revamp of the cable channel, and this will only increase it. (Fun fact from Deadline: MSNBC actually lost to HLC and CNBC in the last quarter, both considered secondary/specialty cable channels.) But what will MSNBC choose to do? A few years ago, Griffin and I talked about audience building at a conference in Jerusalem, along with HBO’s CEO and others. Griffin said at the time that he was less interested in ratings in general than with building brand loyalty and passion, a model that works quite well for HBO — in part because they sell subscriptions rather than ads, though. At that time the model appeared to be succeeding for Griffin, but maybe only because the political winds of the time favored progressives.

That may not have changed as much as one might hope, but clearly MSNBC is no longer getting a benefit from its community building and brand loyalty. That could be seen as an indicator that progressive populism has waned considerably, thanks to the incompetence of the Obama administration and the aggressively autocratic agenda of the Democrats, but that may not be the entire issue either. It’s also the quality of the shows themselves, as this clip from last night’s Ed Schultz show demonstrates:

Strident demagoguery may sell for a short period of time, but it has little staying power. In contrast, the talking head shows on Fox and CNN deal with dissent in a much more mature manner, and usually features more of it than MSNBC prime-time shows do. For that matter, Morning Joe has a much different dynamic than the channel’s prime-time shows, and it’s thriving.

Conservatives who think that MSNBC will suddenly lean to the right may be missing the point, too. Even if that produces a burst of curiosity, it’s not going to stick unless the quality of the broadcasts improve. Griffin ran out the string on his form of progressive tribal signaling as the primary strategy, and his audience has dissipated because MSNBC’s primetime doesn’t deliver anything more than that. They need talent more than anything else, and a way to make themselves relevant to more than just the progressive fringe. Griffin has a much more difficult task ahead of him, if NBC allows him to stick around long enough to complete it.

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