Live-aud format boosted 25-54 demo, but couldn't catch 'Connie'

NEW YORK — MSNBC has killed Phil.

Citing the lagging ratings for Phil Donahue’s 8 p.m. gabber and putting the finishing touches on its second primetime incarnation in less than a year, the news cabler has canceled its most-viewed program.

“We’re proud of the program and we’re disappointed that the show was not able to attract the viewership we had hoped for and expected,” network prexy Erik Sorenson wrote in a statement e-mailed Tuesday afternoon.

The Secaucus, N.J.-based net will air in its place a two-hour version of “Countdown: Iraq,” which starts at 7 p.m. and is anchored by Lester Holt.

When the net signed on the legendary left-wing yakker after a six-year hiatus from television, Donahue seemed like the net’s great white-haired hope.

But the show never caught up to CNN’s second-place “Connie Chung Tonight” nor did it ever approach the stratosphere of Fox News Channel’s first-place “O’Reilly Factor.”

While the lifespan of “Donahue” has been a subject of industry speculation since October, the decision to ax the program still perplexes some.

Since its July 15 debut, Donahue’s program had a leg up on the net’s flagship “Hardball” with an average audience of 438,000, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The Chris Matthews-anchored 9 p.m. show had an aud of 421,000.

But network execs say “Donahue” — like their CNN rival “Connie Chung Tonight” — is a risky, costly undertaking that needed big ratings jumps to justify the expense.

And while “Chung” has seen sizable upticks over the past two months, “Donahue” seems to have lost steam.

Only three months ago, MSNBC gambled that a move to a live-aud format in NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center would reinvigorate ratings. While the strategy briefly boosted auds in the 25-54 demo, show failed to catch “Connie Chung Tonight” in total viewership.

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