You could read the MSNBC comment as a trifecta of political messaging: damage control meets trial ballooning meets dog whistling. Consumers, in general, don’t like to think of themselves as partisan; it’s almost always good PR for a news organization to frame itself as the sane alternative to wingnuttery, whatever the wing may be. And you could also read the shift as a tacit admission of what we know, anecdotally, to be true: that loyal opposition often makes for better entertainment than shruggy agreement. (See, for example, much of the commentary on Jon Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show, which assumed that progressive news programs aren’t as appealing—as fiery or, in Stewart’s case, as funny—when there’s a Democratic president in office.) News, much as it likes to claim otherwise, feeds off of conflict; without it, as Politico put it last year, “MSNBC is in serious trouble.”
There’s a more structural explanation, though—one that has to do not just with the political context in which MSNBC operates, but with its economic model. MSNBC (which is part of NBCUniversal, which is part of Comcast, which is among other things the subject of Jack Donaghy’s classic satire of vertical integration) comes to most viewers as part of a cable bundle. You know the story: Cable companies generally group MSNBC with Fox News and CNN and also Food Network and Comedy Central and, if you’re especially lucky, the Hallmark Channel. Consumers play a flat fee and get the whole bundle. And the networks, for their part, get relatively steady subscription revenue in addition to what they get from advertisers.
It’s a model that has partially insulated MSNBC and its fellow news networks from the day-to-day business pressures of viewership and ratings; just a couple hundred thousand daily viewers in “the demo”—viewers in the 25-to-54 age range, the people most highly prized by advertisers—can be enough, thanks to the contributions of people who buy the bundle for Guy Fieri, to make the channel profitable. (MSNBC, notoriously ratings-challenged since its peak during the Bush years, was projected to bring in $475 million in revenue in 2013.)