MSNBC Finally Prepares to Change Its Current 'Death Wish' Schedule

March 19th, 2015 7:05 PM

As NewsBusters has often reported, MSNBC's line-up has led the cable news channel to a freefall in the ratings, with Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik blasting the schedule as “unwatchable” and “24 hours a day of mess.”

In an article posted on Thursday, Politico columnist Dylan Byers reported that the channel's daytime year-to-date viewership “is down 21 percent overall and 41 percent in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic.”

As a result, MSNBC is now “in fourth place behind Fox News, CNN and CNN's sister network, HLN,” Byers reported. In addition, “its prime-time ratings are down 24 percent and 42 percent, respectively.”

“In both daytime and prime time,” he added, “MSNBC is bringing in its smallest share of the demo since 2005, the year before Keith Olbermann’s scorched-earth admonitions of the Bush administration ushered in the current era of Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.”

Phil Griffin -- president of the cable channel -- sent a memo to his staff in December, which read: “It’s no secret that 2014 was a difficult year for the entire cable news industry and especially for MSNBC.” But change was coming, Griffin promised, due to the arrival of new NBC News Group chairman Andrew Lack.

The first move came in mid-February, when the weekday shows hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid were replaced with MSNBC Live, a two-hour news program led by Thomas Roberts.

Byers noted on Thursday that in the next few months, “MSNBC is likely to shake up the bulk of its programming, moving some shows and canceling others.”

“With a few exceptions -- notably The Rachel Maddow Show and Morning Joe -- every program is at risk of being moved or canceled,” high-level sources told Byers. In addition, longtime hosts Chris Matthews of Hardball and Lawrence O’Donnell, who wraps up the prime-time schedule at 10, is also likely to ride out the current transition.

Despite its own ratings setbacks, Morning Joe, the three-hour morning talk show anchored by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, is among the network’s most influential -- and lucrative -- programs.

However, “All In with Chris Hayes, a ratings suck that currently occupies the 8 p.m. time slot, will almost certainly be replaced. Network execs are also considering moving some weekday shows, like PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, to weekends” even though many commentators claim it's time to cancel that show because of its host's mixture of being a TV anchor and a liberal activist.

“The plan is to re-imagine what the channel is,” one high-level NBCUniversal insider with knowledge of the network’s plans said, “because the current lineup is a death wish.”

“However, MSNBC’s defenders … often argue that the network’s woes are due to Americans’ waning interest in politics and liberals’ disenchantment with president Barack Obama,” Byers noted. “This argument usually ignores Fox News’ sustained success -- it is and has long been the No. 1 cable news channel, through administrations Republican and Democratic.”

“In fact, MSNBC’s problems run deeper than the news-opinion divide,” Byers stated before noting:

The network’s programming has grown stale ... while its principal rival, CNN, has been ascendant. Much of the younger talent consists of entertainers with no reportorial chops who can be hard to take seriously.

Veteran hosts seem to have grown tired of trumpeting liberal outrage night after night and have become caricatures of themselves. The calculus for Griffin and Lack, then, is not just about balancing news and ideology. It’s about creating compelling programming.

“The MSNBC of today is a radically different animal than the one Lack helped create as president of the news division in 1996,” Byers asserted. “At the time, Lack and his colleagues envisioned the network as a smarter version of CNN, with straightforward news programming and analysis from across the political spectrum.”

“That all changed in 2006 with Olbermann’s diatribes against the Bush administration, Republican lawmakers and conservative media,” the columnist continued. “Inspired by Olbermann’s success, the network began to rebrand itself as the liberal answer to Fox News.”

Since then, and especially after Olbermann’s suspension in 2010 for political donations, “Griffin began building the prime-time lineup around Maddow,” whom Byers called “a groundbreaking liberal voice, an entertainer and the first openly gay prime-time news anchor.”

“Liberal opinion shows began to dominate more and more of the lineup,” he continued, “bleeding backward from prime time into the early evening and the afternoons.”

However, “All in is a distant third place to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, both in total and in the demo,” while Ed Schultz has been described as “unpalatable, a Rush Limbaugh of the left.”

No new changes to the MSNBC slate have yet been announced, but it's likely that the only direction MSNBC's ratings can go is up.