MSNBC has a problem that might not be fixable: It’s too liberal.
That’s not a criticism of its left-leaning politics, although there is certainly plenty to debate there -- a debate I will leave to others who are more adept at navigating the minefield of left vs. right politics.
However, as a TV columnist and long-time writer on the subject of both television and radio, I have made this observation: Right-leaning people tend to flock to right-leaning television and radio personalities in much greater numbers than liberals flock to their own like-minded hosts. And that means MSNBC might be facing an obstacle that is possibly insurmountable.
I make no claim to owning this particular observation. It is one that has been made by many others, and it is the linchpin -- the “secret sauce,” if you will -- for the success of a slew of right-leaning media entities, the best examples being Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh (though there are many others).
Why bring this up? Because of the many stories appearing recently detailing MSNBC’s collapse in the ratings against its competitors Fox News and CNN. The stories came out earlier this month and mainly covered the performances of all three news channels in the just-concluded third quarter of the year (July through September).
It really is pathetic when you see the numbers. According to this story in The New York Times, signature MSNBC shows such as “Morning Joe” and “Rachel Maddow” sank to their lowest viewership in years. “Morning Joe” averaged just 87,000 viewers in the news demo -- adults 25-54 -- and “Maddow” averaged just 183,000 in the demo at 9 p.m., her lowest demo average ever. And she is considered to be MSNBC’s biggest star.
By contrast, Megyn Kelly on Fox News Channel averaged 401,000 in the demo against Maddow at 9 o’clock. At 8, Bill O’Reilly averaged 447,000 -- the best in cable. Meanwhile, on MSNBC at 8 p.m.: “All in with Chris Hayes” was averaging 129,000 viewers in the demo during the quarter.
The daytime was even worse for MSNBC, even when you take into account the fact that daytime viewership is inevitably much lower than in the evening. The daytime show on MSNBC drawing the lion’s share of attention for its dismal showing in the third-quarter ratings is “Ronan Farrow Daily” at 1 p.m. This talk show starring a blue-eyed son of Mia Farrow, who looks suspiciously like Frank Sinatra averaged only 45,000 viewers in the demo.
Of course, no one but the geniuses at MSNBC ever thought this guy would make it as a TV personality, at least not at this point in a career that included no TV experience whatsoever on his resume.
One can always make the argument that MSNBC’s problems have less to do with the difficulties of getting liberals excited about liberal TV shows than with MSNBC’s ongoing failure to locate and develop talent that will attract viewership.
And when it comes to pure talent, MSNBC has no one like O’Reilly, who happens to be great at what he does. For that matter, so is Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. Meanwhile, MSNBC hires people like Chris Hayes. Never heard of him? You’re not alone.
But even if MSNBC found some sort of liberal equivalent to Bill O’Reilly, there’s no guarantee that such a personality would bring MSNBC an audience of liberals on par with the conservative audience that is so fervently loyal to Fox News Channel.
Just look at talk radio -- liberals are far and few between in the talk-radio world. Some years back, there was even a liberal radio network -- Air America -- that eventually went out of business, despite (or perhaps because of) having Al Franken as its star personality.
No, there is just something about conservatives and the way they latch onto talk shows that reflect their point of view that has simply never been matched in the world of liberal media. And so, the quest for a liberal Rush Limbaugh continues.