As Liberalism's Approval Drops, Is MSNBC Slipping Into Third Place Behind CNN?

The conventional wisdom on cable news branding may be changing. It’s been said that MSNBC found its way being a fiercely liberal channel, while CNN dithered with a calmer (ahem, still liberal) lineup. Now CNN is close to overtaking MSNBC in prime time, reported Bill Carter in The New York Times. So much for "leaning forward."

“MSNBC may be rediscovering the downside of partisan news,” Chris Daly, a professor of journalism at Boston University, told Carter. “That is, the size of your audience is essentially cajoled by the size of the electorate that already agrees with you.” The electorate isn’t getting thrills up its legs over Obama any more.

The Times probably would not want to claim that the entire audience of Fox News Channel is an electoral bloc agreeing with conservatives. Carter reported:

The ratings results for the month of September show that CNN, long relegated to third place in the prime-time cable news competition, is edging its way back up, while MSNBC is moving in the other direction.

For the month, CNN averaged 257,000 viewers in prime time in the category that counts most to the networks — viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — because that is where the advertising money goes for news programming. MSNBC was just barely ahead with 269,000 viewers. (Neither approached the leader, Fox News, with 526,000).

Both CNN and MSNBC had one especially strong night because of the Republican presidential debates. With those excluded, however, CNN beat MSNBC, 219,000 to 207,000.

Carter insists MSNBC is suffering from the removal of that egomaniac Keith Olbermann, and his little show on Current TV. "Mr. Olbermann averaged just over 50,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 measure in September, or less than 20 percent of what he attracted on MSNBC." (He's certainly not drawing less than one-fifth his old salary.) The removal of the Olbermaniacs is apparently causing heartburn for MSNBC.

The change in the September ratings was most noticeable at 8 p.m., where CNN has moved its best-known host, Anderson Cooper. The network’s performance during that hour has improved by 38 percent over last year, growing to 215,000 viewers from 156,000.

On MSNBC, meanwhile, Lawrence O’Donnell has lost 100,000 viewers from the numbers Mr. Olbermann posted last September, with 185,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 age group, a drop of 35 percent. (Bill O’Reilly on Fox, as always, dwarfs his competitors with about three times as many viewers, 611,000.)

More ominously, the falloff for Mr. O’Donnell seems to be affecting MSNBC’s biggest name, Rachel Maddow. Her audience dropped 15 percent this year, to 245,000 from 289,000. She still beats Piers Morgan on CNN in the 9 p.m. hour, but his show has improved 18 percent over Larry King’s ratings last year, with 193,000 viewers to Mr. King’s 164,000.

MSNBC executives endured a contentious parting with Mr. Olbermann last January. Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, had a succinct answer to the question of whether the network is feeling the impact of Mr. Olbermann’s departure: “No.” He added, “I’m confident that we will increase our ratings as politics become the dominant story over the next year.”

Carter did not apparently ask Griffin how his political-involvement standard for evening hosts has changed from Olbermann (dumped for a few political contributions) to Sharpton (running a permanent race-baiting campaign). The answer could have been priceless.

But CNN is left to boast that its hottest hour in the key demographic is at 10 pm, where it's running a rerun of Anderson Cooper 360: It "remains CNN’s strongest hour, with 274,000 viewers, well ahead of “The Ed Show” on MSNBC with 200,000 (though both also are well behind Greta Van Susteren on Fox, who had 415,000.)"

Ed Schultz should keep his day job on the radio.

Tim Graham's picture

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