MSNBC recently canceled shows hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid, reportedly because the channel is tacking away from liberal programming and because the ratings were bad. But MSNBC's supposed abandonment of liberalism can't extend that far: Rachel Maddow isn't going anywhere. So if the problem is mainly ratings, that raises an interesting (to me, at least) question. Why haven't there been any rumors about MSNBC canceling Morning Joe, a show with ratings that are just as bad as—and often much worse than—MSNBC's primetime programming?
There has been speculation about another MSNBC show. Daily Beast reporter Lloyd Grove reported that All In's Chris Hayes was next on the chopping block, for the same reasons given for the ousters of Reid and Farrow: Poor ratings, blamed in large part on the channel's reliance on liberal politics.
Hayes, a writer on the Nation magazine who had frequently substituted for Maddow, was never going to mount a serious challenge to O'Reilly, yet he managed to fall short of even modest expectations, regularly coming in dead last against CNN's Anderson Cooper and HLN's Nancy Grace.
If the inciting incident for this sort of rumor-mongering is "regularly comes in dead last," shouldn't media gossips believe Morning Joe to be on life support?
Morning Joe isn't even remotely competitive with Fox's morning show, "The Idiot Smile-time Revue," but none of MSNBC's programming is remotely competitive with Fox's programming, so that doesn't really count against them. What should count against Joe Scarborough is that his show now routinely loses to CNN's New Day and HLN's Morning Express.
On the last Friday in February, Morning Joe came in dead last in total viewers and had an atrocious 57,000 viewers in "the demo," industry speak for valuable 25-54-year-olds. That was a recent low point, but both CNN and HLN beat Morning Joe in the demo fairly regularly, and MSNBC is apparently worried enough about Morning Joe's ability to compete that it brought on a new executive to oversee the channel's morning programming. As Variety noted at the time: "The hire comes as the show has ceded ground to CNN's New Day, which has trumped Joe in the ratings for several months." And yet, no buzz about Joe Scarborough being ousted from mornings and moved to a roving "correspondent" job.
Is Morning Joe failing simply because MSNBC as a whole is in the toilet? Maybe, but MSNBC's position isn't as dire as you might think. Like CNN, MSNBC is structurally unable to compete with Fox News, mainly because liberals and the politically unaffiliated and unengaged don't consume media in the same way that angry conservative whites do. But MSNBC has traditionally made quite a lot of money for its parent company, and while MSNBC may bring in less money than Fox News, it also spends less than its competitors. Its primetime viewership has declined, but it's not a total disaster. In a week in which Fox News was the most-watched cable channel — not the most-watched cable news channel, but the most-watched cable channel — in primetime, MSNBC still edged out CNN in total viewers.
Of course, MSNBC's owners would prefer that MSNBC got spectacular ratings and earned a lot more money. But if MSNBC wanted to make a pure ratings play, instead of wanting to reorient the political tone of their network, there's a lot they could do. It is likely true that MSNBC could replace All In With Chris Hayes with a different sort of show, and get better ratings. A reality show about a pawn shop or a competitive cooking show or a campy Shonda Rhimes soap would all probably out-perform Hayes in the demo. But a cheery, dumb morning show hosted by attractive half-wits talking about heroic animals, extreme weather, and inspiring tales of survival would almost certainly out-perform Morning Joe. It may be in the best interest of people who work on Morning Joe, to suggest otherwise, but MSNBC's problem isn't "liberal programming," it's "political programming."
CNN's Jeff Zucker knows this, which is why he's developing lots of general-interest entertainment programming. I suspect MSNBC executives know this, too, but thus far they have not suggested that they are considering abandoning politics. Joe Scarborough can take solace in the fact that certain types of political programming have a non-monetary value to media companies. Having shows that "drive the conversation" makes cable executives feel important and powerful. The question, then, is which direction Comcast and MSNBC executives wish the conversation to be driven.
The rumor that Chris Hayes is next was likely spread not by someone with inside information that the move is in the works, but by someone who thinks it should be, or who is using the press to make the case that it should be. But if All In is in trouble, and Morning Joe isn't, the reason would be ideology, not economics. Media executives tend to be more embarrassed by outspoken liberalism than they are by a show in which rap music is blamed for the racism of an all-white southern school chapter of the only fraternity founded in the pre-Civil War South. This is the same network, remember, that canceled Phil Donahue for opposing the Iraq War, at a time when his show was the highest-rated on the channel. Shortly after axing Donahue, MSNBC brought on a pro-war ex-congressman named Joe Scarborough. They continued to lose to Fox in the ratings, but sometimes, in corporate media, losing with a "respectable" opinion is worth it.
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