MSNBC Chief Sees Hard News Focus, Trump Scandals Driving Ratings Surge

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Rachel Maddow had planned to stay home sick from her MSNBC program Thursday night, but news got in her way.

As Maddow lay on a couch at home, she told viewers last week, she learned of a major NBC News scoop: Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and one of his most senior advisers, was under scrutiny by the FBI in its probe of Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election. She returned to the network to host her regular primetime show that evening.

“When I got the call about this news, I really wanted to come in,” Maddow told her viewers. “Because I think this is important.”

More people are finding it difficult to stay away from MSNBC. In the first quarter, the network’s weekday primetime viewership in adults 25-54 – the demographic coveted most by advertisers –  rose 54%, and its overall audience in that time slot swelled 68%. Only Fox News Channel and ESPN had more viewers on cable in primetime, and the demo audience was MSNBC’s biggest in five years. For the week of May 15, MSNBC beat both Fox News and CNN in weekday prime in both overall viewers and adults 25-54 – the first time in the network’s history it has done so.

MSNBC’s recent rise has even made Rachel Maddow, on some recent nights, the most watched host in cable-news – a spot held regularly for years by former anchor Bill O’Reilly. That’s enough to give new meaning to the phrase “Fox News Alert.” But Fox News continues to lead in primetime overall in both total viewers and in the demo for this month as of May 23, according to Nielsen.

“We want to do as well as anybody,” says Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, who recently signed a new deal to stay at the network he has led since July 2008. “The ultimate is to be number one.”

The question, of course, is whether the network’s rise is being fueled by its coverage of the ongoing swirl of controversy surrounding the Trump administration, or driven by a number of significant strategic changes put in place at MSNBC over many months.

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Not too long ago, the network was much lower in the pecking order.  The audiences that flocked to Keith Olbermann in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama to the White House had dissipated, put off, MSNBC executives believe, by growing dysfunction between the President and a Republican-controlled Congress. Meantime, MSNBC had peppered much of its schedule with hosts who looked at the news from a progressive point of view. Reverend Al Sharpton had a a weekday hour.

No one expects the current MSNBC primetime lineup – Chris Hayes, Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell – to join the Heritage Foundation or the John Birch Society anytime soon (MSNBC is in the midst of what one person familiar with discussions calls “productive” negotiations with O’Donnell to renew his contract). But MSNBC’s modus operandi has changed. The network focuses more on breaking news, an emphasis that surfaces at times in the primetime shows. And it has even enlisted a few anchors and contributors – former Fox News host Greta van Susteren; former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace; and conservative columnist George Will – whose presence in the network’s progressive “lean forward” days might have been less pronounced.

MSNBC promos once featured hosts talking about issues from a liberal standpoint. Now, many of them show reporters in pursuit of information – like Andrea Mitchell attempting to prod Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to offer even a meager comment to the press. An emerging cadre of NBC News journalists, including Hallie Jackson, Katy Tur, Kasie Hunt and Jacob Soboroff, has a growing presence on the channel, and they emphasize shoe-leather reporting, not pontificating. During one recent segment on MSNBC’s “11th Hour” with Brian Williams, Jackson cut her on-screen time short to take a call buzzing on her smartphone.

“The number of people coming in – you know it’s about getting a fuller understanding of what’s going on,” says Griffin. “We’ve really emphasized talking to reporters, getting facts, going deep, trying to figure things out and unravel what’s going on. I think that has paid off.” He says MSNBC tries to avoid the din of bickering among multiple commentators on a panel. “I can’t emphasize enough that we do more one-on-ones and one-on-twos than either of the other guys.”

Some think the rejiggering may alter perceptions of MSNBC as a “liberal” network that’s only for blue states. “It seems to have moved a bit more to the center,” says Thomas O’Guinn, a professor of marketing at University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the way TV viewing affects consumer beliefs. He acknowledges the network “has still signaled, in lower decibel levels and insult levels, that it is still the voice of the loyal opposition.”

MSNBC needs to do more to stay even with its competitors. It has brought in significantly less advertising revenue than Fox News or CNN, according to SNL Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Kagan projects Fox News will snare $912.6 million in ad revenue in 2017, while CNN will collect $427.4 million. But MSNBC is seen winning $267.8 million.

And rivals have grown the money they get from cable and satellite distributors faster than MSNBC. Kagan projects the monthly fee Fox News collects per subscriber will rise 24% between 2015 and 2017, to $1.55. CNN’s is seen increasing 19.7%, to 79 cents. But MSNBC’s is expected to rise just 4%, to 26 cents per subscriber, according to Kagan.

The network still has a reputation as a place for left-leaning viewers. MSNBC’s evening hosts “keep talking about each day’s developments as if they are progressing toward something, and that something is not stated, but what I think they’re thinking of is either resignation or impeachment,” says David A. Caputo, professor of political science at Pace University. “That attracts a number of people.”

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MSNBC’s focus on allegations surrounding Trump operatives takes place as Fox News in primetime often covers topics that appeal more to its conservative viewers. “There is this increased interest by more of a liberal or even moderate base tuning in to something other than Fox to try and understand these scandals,” says Heather LaMarre, an associate professor at Temple University who studies politics and media psychology. “There is increased attention among the more liberal citizenry.”

Griffin believes the network’s new appeal is driven by its desire to get information to viewers, not by partisan leanings. He says MSNBC will jump on the latest headlines not only from NBC News, but outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, and then work to get reporters at the center of those scoops on its air. “Information is what people want,” he says. “We are talking to people who are breaking the stories” while “a lot of our people are making the follow-up phone calls to introduce new elements. The great thing about Rachel Maddow is there’s as much new information in that program as on any other, and people are responding to it.”

MSNBC will have to see whether its new appeal extends beyond the current Trump-dominated cycle. “Trump’s outrageous antics are what is behind the ratings surge,” says Ira Berger, who supervises ad buying on broadcast and cable for the Richards Group, an independent Dallas ad agency.

But executives hope viewers who come to watch at times of crisis will stick around for the aftermath. “You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders when the largest audiences come to you,” says Griffin. “Then people stick with you.”

(Pictured: Phil Griffin)

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  1. WeWon YouLost says:

    MSNBC is a joke. Bunch of commies crying all day hysterically about how Trump is Hitler. Will be so awesome to watch them cry again in 2020 when Trump wins easily.

  2. jim says:

    Msnbc is the only place you can get away from the republican noise machine. The only place facts matter. really its like canadian tv you know the country were your not allowed to broadcast false or misleading information. Funny as canada is the democrats utopia and the republicans nightmare.

  3. FREEDOM of Speech or Regressive Left Speech Police
    Just like the news being reported objuctively,without bias “Where Who”
    Moderating discussion forums is about more than being an internet policeman. So the Left created Hate speech laws to silence critics of social policies and Religion.
    But they can joke about beheading or assassinating a president because they are the Double Standard Left on just about everything.
    A list of Liberal Dominated companies who Moderate many conservative websites.
    ViaFoura– Based in Toronto,Canada
    Disqus– Based in San Francisco founders Daniel Ha, Jason Yan
    Livefyre– Based in San Francisco, NYC owner Adobe Systems
    Outbrain– Based in NYC owner Yaron Galai
    How many employees do you think are conservative working for them? And what political party do you think they support the most ?
    It does not seem to matter to most people who controls what.
    “Until you lose it”

  4. Mosin Nagant says:

    Millions of us stopped watching FOX. (We did not switch to MSNBC though…………)

  5. NoLeftTurn says:

    The left creates a crisis and sheeple fall for it. Great job Grubers!

  6. Sam Slouch says:

    Bring Keith O back for entertainment.

  7. Cntrlfrk says:

    .
    The Fake News media like MSNBC are capitalizing on the manufactured Russian conspiracy theory.

    They are a safe space for democrats to go to have their denial of reality stroked

  8. Oncefired says:

    The Libs are tuning in for their Daily Dose of Fake News! The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! Once the Media is Forced to turn their head and look at the Seth Rich murder, it will be Proven he was the Source……Then a bunch of Libs & uni-Part Rinos will owe Vlad an Apology, if They don’t get us into a Hot War with the help of McLame & Goober!

  9. Wolfgang says:

    I know enough about life and how the woe we wish upon an enemy or neighbor will revisit us. Therefore I predict many scandals and arrests will plague MSNBC/NBC/ABC/CBS/CNN as arrests and scandal is what they are inventing for Trump. What goes around comes around.

  10. You left wing idiots missed the headline that should have been on this article. “Liberal idiot sons take over and destroy Fox news and viewers are tuning out which is giving MSNBC a chance to win for the first time in 18 years.” How stupid and uninformed are your “journalists”? The fact that the liberal sons fired her competition, Bill O’riley, who had dominated all of cable for 18 years might have something to do with her success.

  11. Max Dugan says:

    failed industry and nobody cares what they do anymore….they are past tense….and variety is feeding off a corpse.

  12. Reed Smith says:

    lol…the left, STILL shocked at having lost to someone like trump is scurrying for the safe space and warm blankey of MSNBC, looking…seeking…YEARNING for some sort of validation and consolation. Oh, and throw SNL in there too (snick…)

  13. manny says:

    Phil Griffin needs to thank Rupert Murdoch’s two snowflake sons next time he sees them at one of those liberal elite cocktail parties in Manhattan.

  14. Marie says:

    The Russian Conspiracy Story is simply blather. Nothing there! Remember when the hot mic was on Frmr. President Barack Obama and he whispered to a Russian diplomat, I’ll be able to do more after the election. No concern by the Media, such hypocrisy. This is all because of pure hatred that President Trump Won. By the way, the Popular Vote was never discussed by MSNBC nor CNN as the geographically charted night after night that Hillary had Electoral Votes to win and Lost. All of a sudden the Popular Vote is important.

  15. Viewer Sj says:

    While some on the far left may think MSNBC is going too far right, they at least don’t have a Cadre of dishonest Trump apologists like CNN does. It’s important for people to hear honest analysis from the left & right. Cnn cast of characters that just shill for Trump (many unofficially directly advising him) make me change the channel. Jason, Jeffrey, Kayleigh, Jack etc make me change the channel because they rarely have anything intelligent to say

  16. cooper says:

    I’m a conservative and we are taking over America!

    • Steve says:

      LOL. No, you aren’t.

      • Kaboom! says:

        Steve lives in a world of make believe. Conservatives currently run all three branches of the Federal government, and 33 state governors are conservative. Only the big cities are liberal, where higher crime and higher taxation is the liberals current talking points.

  17. heyitsron says:

    While MSNBC may be behind in revenue it obscures the fact that CNN has struggled, coughed, and sputtered since the loss of Larry King who never turned on his guests. Which is why everyone was eager to appear on his show. CNN never seemed to gain solid footing. Pierce was a disaster and would get so excited he sputtered to make his feelings known. Anderson seemed to be elevated to an “all we have left” scenario. And yes, we still miss “tell it like it is” “afraid of no one” Keith.

  18. Anonymous says:

    All of you dummies that watch MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS are being brainwashed with lies by these Liberal Democrat networks. Watch FOX News and get the honest news, not propaganda that you hear from these networks.

    • Jeff says:

      Is the world passing you by, snowflake? Go back to Breitbart where you and your ilk can define a new racist term for the last President.

  19. George Lewis says:

    MSNBC is the best comedy on tv. The hysterical lunatic comedy news channel.

  20. MD Hatfield says:

    Rusia,Russia,Russia, we don’t give a crap. It’s the economy Stupid!

  21. Cindy says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the news were reported objectively, without bias, so viewers could make their own decisions? You know, like it ought to be.

  22. geri313 says:

    I’d like to see some more level-headed (as opposed to the jihadists on Fox “News”) conservatives on MSNBC. I want to hear their take on the issues. I want open and honest discussion. I want opinion makers – on both sides of the aisle – to be able to admit when the side they lean toward has gone off the rails.

  23. nestor says:

    MSNBC needs to revisit the blatant lying propaganda from last Novembers election coverage. It’s all captured on Youtube – showing Hillary winning – then she didn’t have the decency to come out after defeat. Funny, we can find a 5 yr old private conversation about stinky vaginas but we can’t find 33000 missing emails from a rogue email server the Clinton and Obama used; now we have impeached rapist Bill Clinton, convicted pervert anthony Weiner and Democrat NY Mayor De blasio charged with child pornography.

    • isohappynow says:

      You are betraying your misogyny with your stinky remarks. Where’s YOUR decency?

    • ravengirl57 says:

      Let it go, Nestor.

      • nohw says:

        Why should we. Hard evidence shows that Hillary should be in jail, yet we continue to be distracted by the latest “breaking” fake news on the made up Russia story. The story set up in advance of Trump’s nomination by the Democrats. The liberal media trying to pretend they are hard news is laughable. Let it go yourself, ravengirl57.

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