Chris Matthews

Focus on commentary and advocacy may be dampening viewership

Has MSNBC leaned too hard on “Lean Forward”?

The NBCUniversal outlet has used that slogan since 2010 to portray itself not as the buttoned-down news source it was when it was a joint venture of NBCU and Microsoft, but as a community for progressive discussion that trumps humdrum reportage with advocacy.

Say what you will about the ongoing collapse of the Fourth Estate, but the partisan approach, in which Al Sharpton and others actively push for change, has worked, bringing ratings increases and celebrity status for primetime personalities like Rachel Maddow.

In recent weeks, however, MSNBC ratings have slipped, and leaning forward may be a cause. MSNBC markets itself as a place for discussion and community. Yet when bombs explode at the Boston Marathon or unrest shatters Egypt, viewers want information first, and analysis — even solutions — later, if at all.

For the week ended July 7, MSNBC’s primetime programming captured 14% to 15% fewer viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — the demographic coveted by sponsors of news programming — than a year earlier, according to Nielsen. In May, MSNBC , which usually plays second only to Fox News, saw its ratings fall behind those of CNN and HLN, too.

MSNBC’s top executive, Phil Griffin, thinks the shift is short-lived. “There has been an inordinate amount of big, breaking news, and that is, honestly, when CNN does well. It’s pure muscle memory,” he said. MSNBC’s performance is bound to suffer in comparison with that of 2012, he added, when a presidential election drew political junkies and casual viewers alike.

Sounds plausible, but could MSNBC’s recent ebb suggest something more seriously amiss? Je rey McCall, author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Infl uence,” believes so, saying that the newsie generated its initial momentum by riding the optimism of President Obama’s rise to prominence.

“MSNBC’s problems might be more than just a hiccup,” McCall maintained. “Now that the Obama administration’s fortunes have apparently declined with various challenges like NSA, IRS and Benghazi, previously (enthusiastic) news consumers on the left might find it hard to keep tuned in.”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with opinion-making. But MSNBC offers an awful lot of it. An analysis by Pew Research of 108 hours of cable-news programming during three days in November and December found opinion and commentary overwhelmed straight news on MSNBC by 85% to 15%. Fox News content included 55% opinion and commentary and 45% factual reporting, Pew said, while CNN content consisted of 46% opinion and commentary and 54% factual reporting.

No matter what their mix, both Fox News and CNN have for years pitched themselves as places to go when viewers need details, not discussion, an angle MSNBC does not take.

MSNBC made a strategic decision to essentially rebrand itself as the policy yin to Fox News’ yang, explained Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “So far this year, (it has) probably seen some of the pitfalls of that rebranding.”

Griffin remains steadfast in the transparency of MSNBC’s mission, and believes there’s little reason to change. The cabler will focus on getting past political malaise, he said. “There is a sense that America doesn’t do big things. We do, in some ways as much as ever. We have to find it.” Look for the network to dabble in digital community-building with a new website in the fall.

Dispensing “just the facts” is no longer enough for most people. Just ask your local newspaper publisher. Still, when big stories do arise, you need newsgathering muscle, not gum flapping. Activist Sharpton can’t do what Brian Williams does, and the more Maddow and Chris Matthews pontifi cate, the farther they get from being able to present news events in an objective fashion. Who is the face of MSNBC should terrorism cripple a major American city?

MSNBC has woven a grand tapestry. But it should never forget that there are times when a news network simply has to stick to its knitting.

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