What's the Matter With MSNBC?

Presenting three theories: the Liberal Hangover Problem, the Zimmerman Problem, and the Predictable Primetime Problem

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MSNBC bills itself as the "place for politics," but if you've been watching the network lately, it's been all Zimmerman trial, all the time. Political director Chuck Todd grew so frustrated with the coverage preempting his Daily Rundown show that he barely concealed his exasperation on-air, as evidenced by a video from the Washington Free Beacon that quickly went viral. Most of the network's flagship news shows, from Hardball with Chris Matthews to Politics Nation with Al Sharpton, seem to spend more time talking about Trayvon Martin than President Obama.

It's nothing new for cable news these days - CNN, FOX News and Headline News have all put the trial at the center of their coverage. But the strategy is especially noticeable when it comes to MSNBC because its numbers have been in sharp decline over the last few months. The network that found success being the aggressively liberal alternative to CNN during the 2012 presidential election is now finding itself with a ratings headache on its hands. And it seems to be abandoning its politics-first play for the easy ratings of nonstop courtroom coverage - following CNN's tabloid turn, if you will.

Asked if the amount of Zimmerman mania was causing any eye rolling at the network, one MSNBC insider said: "It's less the amount of coverage because everyone does that and especially after CNN covering [Jodi] Arias [murder trial] did so well. And we have a large African-American viewership that's interested. The issue is whether we cover it the right way, as a legal issue, which we're mostly doing or does it get covered like it's 2012, when there was no indictment, as a political fight. I worry."

Balancing liberal politics and news, politics and other subjects--it's all an issue for MSNBC this summer. Earlier this month when the cable news ratings for the second quarter of 2013 came out, there was a head-jarring decline in MSNBC's numbers. After a great 2012 in which the liberal-leaning network had bested CNN and, at times, caught up to perennial leader Fox News Channel, MSNBC's was losing the race. By a lot. It had just 576,000 primetime viewers, by one metric, a figure that's down 16 percent from the heady days of 2012.

The question as to why offers some insights into MSNBC's future and, perhaps, the still-unresolved challenges facing a liberal network during a Democratic administration. 

"When you're too predictably a mouthpiece for the administration and you cast your lot with the president's performance, there's a risk," said David Shuster, who left the network for Current TV when his contract expired in 2011. He pointed to Fox's higher production values as one of the reasons for the conservative network's ongoing ratings dominance lead and the high-brow nature of MSNBC's prime time lineup as one of the reasons for its most recent decline.

MSNBC declined to comment for this story, but cable news veterans -- including former MSNBC alumni -- offered their own theories of what ails the network. One common theory is that MSNBC feels threatened by a resurgent CNN.

"MSNBC's apparent success was owing to CNN's failure," says a former cable executive. "CNN was run so poorly that it made MSNBC look fantastic by comparison. "

That seems ready to change. Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC Universal and the guiding hand behind 16 years of Today show victories, has buffed the look of CNN, bringing in network stars like Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper. But more importantly, his expanding definition of breaking news to include the Zimmerman trial gives CNN more room to run.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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