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
"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.
CNN has been the place for breaking news and its audience
reliably swells when there's a big event. (MSNBC insiders deride that as
"muscle memory" owing to CNN's 16-year head start in the 24-hour news
biz and say it will fade in time.) CNN's newsy rep would seem to account
for much of its gain over MSNBC in the second quarter--a time span
which included the Boston Marathon bombings, the Cleveland kidnappings,
and the Oklahoma tornadoes as well as the Jodi Arias trial, which
powered its Headline News channel ahead of MSNBC. But in June at the end
of the dismal second quarter, MSNBC's ratings picked up. "All those
viewers who tuned into CNN for their big quarter haven't stuck around,"
says one cable executive.
Other insiders posited the theory of progressive decline
-- liberals are less fired up now that we're in the second term of the
Obama administration. There's no easy way to measure that but it would
certainly seem like there's less interest in politics as well as liberal
commentary at least on TV. MSNBC rode waves of liberal enthusiasm and
election-related interest in 2012 and 2008. But with Obama down in the
polls and no election at hand, and Congress famously gridlocked, the
place for politics, as MSNBC bills itself, may not be the sexiest best
pitch. MSNBC continued to run its "The Place for Politics" chyron during
the Zimmerman trial on Tuesday morning which would be as incongruous as
boasting "The Place for Courtroom Trials" while airing a presidential