MSNBC and the ‘Move Away From Left-Wing TV’

A report says the network is denouncing partisanship. But why?

Updated February 24, 2015

Late last week, MSNBC made an unsurprising announcement: It would be canceling the low-rated afternoon shows of Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid. Less expected? The move, an MSNBC source told The Daily Beast, is part of the network’s broader push "to move away from left-wing TV."

Which: big if true! MSNBC is widely hailed and/or vilified as the liberal and/or progressive answer to Fox News. It is regularly cited, in studies and op-eds and screeds, as a core contributor to our current culture of partisanship. So what would it actually mean for MSNBC to make a break with "left-wing TV"? What does it say that a network so self-consciously styled along partisan lines has come out (or, at least, had an anonymous source come out) against partisanship?

Publicly, it's worth noting, MSNBC is distancing itself from the "left-wing" quote, emphasizing that a liberal slant is part of not just the network's past, but its future. As an MSNBC spokesperson told me in an email, "We have a great brand," and "we will be staying true to our progressive voice while broadening out the issues we cover through that lens." Those within the network, though, according to the Daily Beast report, see things differently: "Everybody in the food chain from top to bottom," its source says, "understands that the Olbermann era is over."

You could read the "left-wing TV" comment as a trifecta of political messaging: damage control meets trial ballooning meets dog whistling. Consumers, in general, don’t like to think of themselves as partisan; it’s almost always good PR for a news organization to frame itself as the sane alternative to wingnuttery, whatever the wing may be. And you could also read a shift in lens as a tacit admission of what we know, anecdotally, to be true: that loyal opposition often makes for better entertainment than shruggy agreement. (See, for example, much of the commentary on Jon Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show, which assumed that progressive news programs aren't as appealing—as fiery or, in Stewart’s case, as funny—when there’s a Democratic president in office.) News, much as it likes to claim otherwise, feeds off of conflict; without it, as Politico put it last year, “MSNBC is in serious trouble.”

There’s a more structural explanation, though—one that has to do not just with the political context in which MSNBC operates, but with its economic model. MSNBC (which is part of NBCUniversal, which is part of Comcast, which is among other things the subject of Jack Donaghy’s classic satire of vertical integration) comes to most viewers as part of a cable bundle. You know the story: Cable companies generally group MSNBC with Fox News and CNN and also Food Network and Comedy Central and, if you’re especially lucky, the Hallmark Channel. Consumers play a flat fee and get the whole bundle. And the networks, for their part, get relatively steady subscription revenue in addition to what they get from advertisers.

It’s a model that has partially insulated MSNBC and its fellow news networks from the day-to-day business pressures of viewership and ratings; just a couple hundred thousand daily viewers in “the demo”—viewers in the 25-to-54 age range, the people most highly prized by advertisers—can be enough, thanks to the contributions of people who buy the bundle for Guy Fieri, to make the channel profitable. (MSNBC, notoriously ratings-challenged since its peak during the Bush years, was projected to bring in $475 million in revenue in 2013.)

TV is not a particularly agile medium, but the cushioning the bundle has provided has allowed MSNBC to play a long game with its programming and its brand. It has been able to experiment with different styles for its hosts, from the wonky (Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes) to the firebrand-y (Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz) to both of the above (Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews). [It has also brought on journalists of a more ink-stained-wretch persuasion: I, along with many of my colleagues, have been a guest on the network.] MSNBC, as part of these experiments, tried to appeal first to the hearts and then to the minds of its viewers, and finally to a tricky combination of the two. Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, refers to Rachel Maddow as “our quarterback,” Kelefa Sanneh noted in a 2013 New Yorker profile of the network; her show, Sanneh put it, “is built around a startling proposition: that cable news can be interesting, even addictive, without being contentious.”

Here's the problem (and, potentially, the blessing-in-disguise): The bundle that has bolstered MSNBC and its fellow networks may be disintegrating. Last fall, HBO announced that it would be launching a "stand-alone, over-the-top HBO service in the United States" in 2015. The move has been generally interpreted as a harbinger of “the great unbundling,” and also (possibly, eventually) of the death of cable. As my colleague Derek Thompson laid it out:

The irony is that if HBO Go-It-Alone succeeds in expanding both audience and profit for its parent company Time Warner, it will inspire copy-cats. And if you have enough copy-cats experimenting with stand-alone products, the mini-bundle cobbled together among Internet TV options will get bigger, while subscriptions to cable's mega-bundle will shrink, threatening the profits of ... companies like Time Warner.

You could read the de-left-wing-ing of MSNBC as a preemptive response to that eventuality. If the great unbundling is indeed upon us, it will mean that the networks, in fairly short order, will no longer be able to coast on Guy Fieri Money. MSNBC will have to grow more responsive to the slings and arrows of viewer attentions. It will have to be more vigilant about its brand; it will have to be more daring. It will also have to be more cautious. And re-organizing itself under non-partisan (or at least "non-partisan") principles may be a way for the network both to broaden its appeal and to protect itself for the long term against political contingencies—to keep itself, basically, from getting Daily Showed.

MSNBC, like most every other media outlet on the planet, is contending with the rise of the Internet—and with the Internet's ability, in particular, to fracture audiences and question "prime time" and disaggregate that which used to be bundled. What, actually, does it mean to be a news network in a networked world? Any response to that question that involves dampening partisan passions, rather than exploiting them, Fox News-style, could well be foolish. (Cenk Uygur, the host of YouTube's popular Young Turks show, called MSNBC’s shift away from partisanship a terrible strategy move for the network—and a great one, given all those poachable partisans, for him.) The Internet, in its side job as an outrage machine, tends to reward strong feelings regardless of the ideas they're directed to.

Then again. The partisan enthusiasms shared by Uygur and Fox and MSNBC, which are wonderful and terrible in all the well-worn ways, have a countervailing force: the voracious breadth of social media. In a world that finds Facebook taking over some of the psychic space that used to be occupied by the nightly news, the media outlets that are in the best position, business-wise and otherwise, are the ones that create the stuff people want to share. Sometimes that stuff is partisan, sure, but for the most part it's the opposite. The ascendance of Vice and the Buzzfeed is revealing, and not just of the fact that Americans love videos and gifs. The sociologist Pablo Boczkowski talks about the hesitation people often feel in talking about politics in a work environment, where such discussions may lead to unnecessary fractures and offenses; you can extend that logic to Facebook and the rest of the social media sphere. Maybe you want to tell that guy you know from third grade exactly how you feel about the Obamacare rollout; there's a very good chance, though, that you do not. There's a very good chance you'd rather send him a picture of a housecat cuddling a bunny and call it a day.

From that perspective, a news organization that pitches itself as a wonkier CNN—passionate, smart, aggressively inoffensive—may well be selling itself out, but it may also be protecting its future. Phil Griffin has said that he wants MSNBC to be seen as the home of “thoughtful people who can talk about ideas”; his challenge up to now has been to figure out how thoughtfulness can make itself manifest on TV news. That challenge is made more complicated by the fact that the Internet, on top of everything else, is disentangling the "TV" from the "news." Cable's current approach to news—angry, divisive, defining "sharing" in the narrowest of ways—is ripe for disruption. It'd be a fitting irony if a cable network were the one to do the disrupting.