Is MSNBC trying to carve out part of Fox News' audience for themselves?

The media rumor mill has been churning ever since Fox News got into even more trouble stemming from the legal woes of both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. The cable news market is extremely competitive and if anyone smells blood in the water they’re no doubt ready to pounce. The New York Times was almost salivating over the possibility last week and they weren’t the only ones. Yesterday Allahpundit looked at the recent rumors of a new conservative news network being developed to fill the Fox void, though that seems a bit premature.

Far more likely is the idea that the current slate of cable news outfits would try to scoop up any viewers that Fox manages to lose. You can understand CNN trying to position themselves for that market, but the really unexpected entry into the race would be MSNBC. That’s about as poor of a fit for a conservative audience as one could imagine. But is that about to change? Two stories popped up just yesterday which caught my eye. The first was a rumor that our Salem colleague Hugh Hewitt was “in talks” with them to host his own show. (New York Magazine)

MSNBC is in talks with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt about creating a show for him on weekend evenings, four well-placed sources at the network tell Daily Intelligencer. Initially MSNBC was keen on having Hewitt host a program on weekend mornings, but that idea is off the table because Hewitt wants to be on in the evening, according to two sources. At one point, network management also floated moving Joy-Ann Reid’s popular weekend program AM Joy to the afternoon to serve as a lead-in for Hewitt and help jumpstart his ratings, but that plan has seemingly been dropped.

Hugh isn’t commenting on this in public yet so it’s a fairly safe bet that the magazine’s “sources” (who remain anonymous) are reacting to ideas which have been discussed without any sort of decision being made on either side. If there was an agreement reached and a dollar figure set we’d probably already know about it.

But one story which wasn’t a rumor was that the four o’clock slot at MSNBC is going to be taken up by former George W. Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace. (The Hill)

Nicolle Wallace, who served as communications director under former President George W. Bush, has landed her own program on MSNBC.

Wallace, who is a frequent face on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as a contributor, will host a show on the channel in the 4 p.m. ET hour…

The 4 p.m. slot on MSNBC has been hosted by political analyst Steve Kornacki since 2016, leading up to the presidential election. The network says Kornacki will continue to contribute to the revamped hour.

This is a major shift. I happen to like Nicolle and enjoy her work, though I know there are others in the conservative cause who probably find her a bit on the RINO side, as well as some who hold lingering resentment over Wallace’s history with Sarah Palin. But she’s still considerably more conservative than anyone in the entire MSNBC roster except for Scarborough in the mornings. (And his show tends to split down the middle anyway, with guests from both parties making regular appearances.) If the network of Maddow and Chris Hayes suddenly has both Nicole Wallace and Hugh Hewitt showing up in the afternoon and evening what does that do to their brand? The viewers who have come to rely on MSNBC as a comfortable safe space, free of any challenges to liberal doctrine, are probably going to wind up with mental whiplash.

Does that sort of mixed branding approach work? I suppose the question is whether or not any conservative consumers will switch channels when those shows come on the air and if any of the traditional liberal audience will stick around and risk hearing opinions they find abhorrent. As for me, I can’t remember the last time I turned on MSNBC after Morning Joe ended, but I would definitely tune in to see either of these two hosts. (Though I get the feeling I’m not representative of the larger audience they’re shooting for.)

All of that aside, I still have to wonder if all of this positioning and plotting will turn out to be for nothing. The foundation behind all of these moves by other networks seems to be predicated on the assumption that Fox is in trouble and at least some measurable part of their audience may be up for grabs. There doesn’t seem to be any data to support that yet. While it may change later, at least initially, Tucker Carlson is pulling in the same ratings as O’Reilly in his old time slot. And the overall lineup was still dominating the cable news ratings this week pretty much as they normally do. It seems to me that absent a complete sea change in the general tenor of their coverage, Fox’s audience remains remarkably solid from year to year. You can’t knock the other networks for trying (and it would be criminally negligent for them not to make an effort) but there may not be as much of an opening here as media analysts are assuming.