MSNBC Spirals Down
MSNBC is changing. Some of its most popular shows have moved to shorter segments, appearances by conservative guests who offer talking points to counter progressive ideas, and use of panels of guests opining on the trivial stories broadcast by the mainstream media. These changes are occurring along with reports that MSNBC is losing audience share to other cable news networks and thus may be an attempt by management to bolster its audience share.
Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the possibility that MSNBC’s corporate ownership is intent on loosening the foothold that progressivism seems to be making in the country (e.g., Elizabeth Warren’s rising star within the Democratic Party). If these changes reflect the decision of its corporate owners to move in another direction, then progressives should be aware that these changes are being made. Just as a some progressives believe that National Public Radio’s programming has become more conservative because of the increased number of military industrial sponsors who make up shortfalls caused by decreased federal funding, progressives should be aware of changes in MSNBC’s programming due to changes in corporate interests.
Alternatively, if MSNBC’s changes are a misguided response to decreasing audience share, then progressives have the opportunity to help diagnose the problems and offer progressive suggestions to improve MSNBC’s audience. The keystone of this diagnosis is to ask why is MSNBC’s audience share decreasing as progressive ideas (e.g., the minimum wage), fueled, in part, by economic inequality and Republican extremism, seem to be increasing.
If MSNBC’s declining audience is not due to a declining number progressives, then is it due to progressives tuning out because of changes made by the network? Has MSNBC, seeking to grow its audience share made changes that instead resulted in a decreased share of progressives without increasing so-called middle-of-the-road or conservative viewers? Were media consultants called to implement fixes that were supposed to appeal to so-called middle of the road or conservative viewers. If so, then the similarity to the disaster of the 2014 midterm elections are inescapable. Like Democratic Party political consultants, MSNBC’s media consultants may have forgotten its progressive base in an attempt to capture mythical middle-of-the-road viewers.
One tried and true approach of media consultants for boosting audience share is to imitate those shows that are considered popular to a desirable audience segment. While imitating shows that would appeal to their progressive base may have merit, imitating shows that alienate MSNBC’s progressives base without attracting middle of the road and conservatives will not increase audience share.
MSNBC’s progressive base, tends to be more educated, informed about politics, and interesting in learning. To avoid losing that base MSNBC is going to have to continue to have intelligent, original, and interesting content. If imitation is used, then used then successful public broadcasting might be at least as good a model as other cable programs. Moreover, some middle of the roaders and conservatives would probably appreciate content geared toward educated and informed viewers.
Some examples of programs that might be imitated have been previously shown to be popular with educated viewers are in-depth examinations and context of current political issues, historical issues discussed by experts and academics, investigative examinations, perhaps first done by those print journalists doing those investigations, and deeper dives into issues raised by polling or anecdotes attributed to [small] business with techniques such as focus groups or expert panels.
In addition to imitating shows popular with educated viewers and providing context for today’s political news, MSNBC could make better use of its anchors. Before being “promoted” to 8 PM weekdays, Chris Hayes anchored the Up on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 8 AM. The format he developed allowed him to demonstrate his broad knowledge of social issue and his talent for eliciting information from his intellectually and racially diverse panels. Instead, Hayes has played the traditional role of a mainstream broadcast anchor. A role in which Hayes spews forth uncontextualized tidbits from the mainstream broadcasts and that do not highlight his talents.
Hayes was replaced by Steve Kornacki, an able broadcast journalist with a knack for explaining polling numbers. Kornacki, with different talents than Hayes, has not been able to follow the path established by Hayes. In fact, Kornacki seems more suited in a faux Walter Cronkite role than Hayes.
Al Sharpton at 6 PM weekdays offers an important voice for racial justice. However, Sharpton’s role as the head of the National Action Network, conflicts with his ability to fully examine the the interaction of racial issues with some of the other progressive issues that are now intertwined. For example, the National Action Network uses demonstrations to highlight the issues that it champions. But, to maintain the participation of a broad base of supporters, Sharpton must show some degree success even when more objective observers might argue that demonstrations have failed. Who, other than Al Sharpton can argue that demonstrations brought Trayvon Martin justice?
Joy Reid, a talented anchor now on at 2:00 PM weekdays, could bring an incisive and analytical mind to the intersection of racial and progressive issues. Rev. Sharpton’s unique perspective would be invaluable as an able MSNBC contributor. Ed Schulz, a champion of the labor movement, now on 5:00 PM weekdays, would be able to make more of a contribution if moved to the 6:00 PM slot. Labor is a key element of the progressive movement and it is more than a little surprising that its time slot barely gives workers time to get home.
Using the same type of programming and formats that some media consultants believe are responsible for the success of other programs use will not solve MSNBC’s ratings problems. MSNBC achieves some success with audience share by becoming a voice of the progressivism. If it wants maintain its audience share and even grow its share, MSNBC needs to become a genuine voice of progressivism.