What’s Behind MSNBC’s Ratings Decline?

The network has shifted from politics to the Zimmerman trial as it falls behind CNN and Fox News.

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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 of the 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.

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 convention.

Critics also suggest that MSNBC no longer has much diversity in the evenings. It's not that MSNBC needs a conservative host. It's that the nighttime hours from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM are too erudite, too sophisticated and too earnest to hook a wide swath of viewers.

Some believe the network suffered from moving blunt Ed Schultz to the weekend. The former football player and liberal radio talk show host could be irascible and even buffoonish at times--he called Laura Ingraham a "right wing slut...a talk slut" and apologized for it--but his populist instincts contrasted with the evening's urbane mien.

Indeed, Fox from 8:00 to 11:00 may operate in a conservative space but it has more diversity in its style of host. Sean Hannity is different than Greta Van Susteren who is different than Bill O'Reilly. Keith Olbermann, for all his bombast, was a powerfully skilled broadcaster and while his departure for Current TV in 2011 may have pleased MSNBC executives it left the network's lineup with a big hole.

In a sign of how things have turned, Olbermann recently signed a deal as the lead postseason baseball anchor for TBS, while many of MSNBC's primetime stars are dealing with speculation over their declining ratings. Olbermann, no stranger to controversy, even waded in himself on Twitter, writing that the network had "collapsed" since he left and that he hadn't heard from his protégé Rachel Maddow since.

Others smell blood, too. Bill O'Reilly took a shot at MSNBC last week as he often does after Chris Matthews referred to Sen. Ted Cruz as looking a bit black Irish. "It's all falling apart," O'Reilly said of MSNBC.

Collapse? Hardly. Vulnerable? For sure.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.