NY Times: Rachel Maddow, the biggest star on the MSNBC cable network, just posted her lowest quarterly ratings results ever. “Morning Joe,” MSNBC’s signature morning program, scored its second-lowest quarterly ratings, reaching an average of just 87,000 viewers in the key news demographic group.
And “Ronan Farrow Daily,” the network’s heavily promoted new afternoon show, which stars a 26-year-old Rhodes Scholar with a high-profile Hollywood lineage, has been largely a dud.
Though it has mostly happened quietly, which may be a comment on the cable network’s larger status in the media landscape, MSNBC has seen its ratings hit one of the deepest skids in its history, with the recently completed third quarter of 2014 generating some record lows.
Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, acknowledged that his network had been struggling, but put it in the context of the overall drop in cable news. “This has been a tough year all around,” he said. “All three cable news channels are drawing a smaller combined audience than they were five years ago.” (He must not be including Fox News in his statement: “In addition to being the most-watched basic cable network for the 2014 quarter in primetime, Fox News Channel saw across-the-board growth vs. Q3 2013. FNC was up +2% in viewers and up +4% in the A25-54 demo for total day viewing and up +10% in viewers and up +11% in the demo in primetime.) He also emphasized that despite the plunge that caused it to trail CNN in the last quarter, the network remained ahead of CNN for the full year.
In the past, MSNBC’s ratings have typically fallen during times of intensely followed major news events. The current period is awash in them, with stories like ISIS and Ebola commanding a high degree of international reporting. This plays well to CNN’s strengths.
MSNBC consciously established its brand as politics-centric, approaching stories from a left-of-center viewpoint, in deliberate contrast to the right-of-center approach of Fox News, which continues to dominate the news channel ratings. At the same time, MSNBC moved away from a close relationship with NBC News that it had during the early years of the network. Today, fewer NBC News correspondents appear on MSNBC.
Mr. Griffin said that a general apathy about American politics has also hurt the network. “You can look at the dysfunction in Washington, the wariness about politics, the low approval ratings,” he said. “That’s had an impact. But we’ve got to adjust; we’ve got to evolve.”
MSNBC’s recent results have not been encouraging. During the third quarter, Ms. Maddow reached an average of 183,000 viewers in the audience component that most matters to MSNBC’s advertisers, viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, her lowest total since she started her show in 2008.
More worrying is the slide for “Morning Joe,” which has, for much of its time on the air, enjoyed status as one of the most talked-about shows in media industry circles. Now the heat around the show seems to have dissipated. For four straight months, and six of the last eight, “Morning Joe” has trailed CNN’s new morning entry, “New Day.”
One longtime news executive who has worked for both network and cable news organizations said the problem with “Morning Joe” was partly a broader issue with MSNBC. “ ‘Morning Joe’ has been hurt because no one is tuning in to watch the channel now; they go right by,” he said. “The show took its eye off the ball, but you can’t discount the fact that nobody is watching the channel.”
The executive, who asked not to be identified because of potential future business with MSNBC, said Ms. Maddow remains a draw, but her format has grown tired. “In terms of Rachel, everybody knows every night what she’s going to say,” he said. “The network just doesn’t surprise you.”
MSNBC’s other numbers are no prettier. Over all in prime time, MSNBC, which for years had squashed CNN head-to-head on weeknights, has recently dropped consistently behind that network. The falloff over the last five years is stark. In the first quarter of 2009, MSNBC averaged 392,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic for its weeknight lineup. In the third quarter of this year, the number was down to 125,000.
The network’s newest prime-time host, Chris Hayes, also hit a low in the third quarter, averaging 129,000 viewers in the 25-54 category, his worst since his show began in the second quarter of 2013.
The median age of the MSNBC viewer has also ticked upward. Five years ago it was 58; now it is 61. CNN has edged down a bit, from 62 five years ago to 59. Fox News has aged from 65 to 68.
On Monday and Friday of last week, only one MSNBC show all day, “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, even topped 100,000 viewers in that 25-54 group. And the daytime numbers are much worse. Mr. Farrow’s show averaged just 45,000 viewers in the preferred group, down 51 percent from other programming in the same slot last year.
Some of the losses at MSNBC reflect a drift away from cable news channels in general, as Mr. Griffin noted. Over the last five years, Fox News and CNN are both down 13 percent in total audience in prime time; MSNBC is down 21 percent. Fox has little to worry about because its numbers so dwarf the others. CNN has responded with a new strategy that mixes its traditional hard news approach with a regular lineup of pre-produced original series. It had a major success last week with the latest of them, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” with Mike Rowe.
As for MSNBC, Mr. Griffin remained optimistic despite the challenges. He defended the network’s approach, but also hinted that it had to broaden its programming beyond politics. “We have a good brand, a strong brand,” he said. “But we’ve got to get outside Washington and open up our aperture a little.”