Being a Cable News Channel Means Never Saying You’re Sorry

MSNBC’s non mea culpa mea culpa that its prime time experiment is in trouble is fascinating the most fascinating part of the network’s decision to move Ed Shultz back to weeknights.  The problem with the move was less with promoting Chris Hayes to the 8 p.m. slot and more with the rationale for demoting Shultz. Moving Shultz to start a weekend afternoon block with MSNBC talking head Karen Finney was an interesting yet unwarranted demotion. The move was driven by the Internet culture critic’s love affair with Shultz’s replacement Chris Hayes. Worst of all, it was a wrong turn.

Chris Hayes

Removing a successful primetime host like Shultz and his rabid blue-collar Democrat audience and replacing him with a relative neophyte i.e. Hayes with a contrasting style, smaller audience who’s learning on the fly; it rarely works. In this case, that rabid audience fled the time slot. It’s a cocky maneuver that only Fox could get away with in this era. The risk is high. Audiences are hard to gain and easy to lose.  This does not prevent that Hayes will never find his footing. Perhaps in time he’ll find his prime time voice. His weekend show which still airs 8AM on Saturdays and Sundays with its new host Steve Kornacki allows breathing room to wade into grad school political fistfights with intellectuals over two hours with little competition from his competitors on the other networks. Beyond that Hayes a faced the deflating political news marketplace and breaking news does not drive viewers to MSNBC.

MSNBC once christened itself “The Place for Politics.” It and most of cable news is just that. Its ratings fortunes rise and fall with the political season. When politicians share the stage with the rest of the news world firebrands harping on principle isn’t as appealing to audiences. MSNBC felt that it was finally more than this. This is a falsehood.

Cable News is about trust, dedication, and clarity.  MSNBC has none. When you have no trust, dedication, or clarity viewers only flock to you when it is your season. For CNN its breaking news, for HLN its sensationalistic trials and investigations and for MSNBC and Fox News its elections. Fox News’ ratings returned to mean, as have MSNBCs. MSNBC’s mean is lower than Fox News’ because Fox News viewers know what its, MSNBC’s viewers do not.

MSNBC’s liberal, politics fueled, mosh pit of pundits rode the momentum of the 2012 election year into a firm second place footing the cable news rankings. In 2012, MSNBC’s ratings jumped by double digits. Led by Rachel Maddow, the network reached the highs not seen since Countdown with Keith Olbermann’s height in the midst of yet another election year 2008. Olbermann left the left the network in early 2011.

Ed Schultz

Shultz, a rare successful liberal talk radio host, was a bit player on the network. The abrupt departure of Olbermann Shultz into the forefront, first as Maddow’s lead out and most successfully as Maddow’s lead in. The ill-fitting Ed Schultz and his blue-collar mad dog shout fest approach to political TV was  the contrast to Maddow’s erudite style. Hayes, like Maddow and fellow prime time host Lawrence O’Donnell’s show share Countdown’s DNA.  They’re brainy, wordy, and nerdy intellectualists.  This clear contrast, the Chris Hayes Internet press love fest, and the network’s ratings led to this change. These are severe misreading of reality. Election year ratings are clearly steroidal and should not be a part of any scheduling and contract decision-making. The love internet television community is not representative of the love of cable news audiences. Cable news audiences are among the oldest on television and glacial in their tastes. Hayes is clearly a dreamboat for the political conversation many young liberal bloggers hope will appear.  Worst of all,  the network believed it became the political home for the left, instead of becoming the political home for the left and counterweight to Fox News.

Fox News gradually built its foundation and the trust of its audience over half a decade becoming both the political and cultural home for the right. Every nook, cranny and everything in between is a shaped from a right slanted prospective. Fox News can afford to make dramatic shifts to its schedule (i.e. adding Glenn Beck riding him to massive success and dumping him less than two years later) because its audience trusts them. MSNBC’s morning co-host Joe Scarborough is a conservative. The bulk of MSNBC’s programming takes no obvious slant. A cultural home is not established with one good year or two or a prime time lineup. MSNBC’s slant is a blip in its history. Fox News’ slant is its history. MSNBC is not a true counterweight for Fox News. MSNBC is news organization with a success cranky liberal editorial page that’s quickly slanting the trajectory of the network. MSNBC must decide what it is or it will continue to fall victim to the ebbs and flows of the news cycle or embrace its slant. Once it chooses it trajectory it will gain its footing and audience over a period of years. Only then will the blows of the news cycle soften.