Chris Matthews: Why Less Is More for MSNBC

NBCU cable-news outlet tries to make 7 p.m. slot a destination witih original "Hardball," while filling 5 p.m. roost with Ed Schultz

Chris Matthews MSNBC

When it comes to long-running program “Hardball,” one hour seems to be better than two for MSNBC.

Since the NBCUniversal cable-news outlet canceled the 5 p.m. edition of the veteran Chris Matthews’ program on August 26, ratings for the 7 p.m. edition – which used to be a rerun – have experienced a noticeable hike. And slightly more people are watching the earlier timeslot with “The Ed Show” than they were when Matthews held sway.

According to Nielsen, the average number of viewers for “Hardball” at 7 p.m. between August 26 and November 5 has increased to about 919,000, from an average of 479,000 for the month prior to the switch and an average of 625,000 between December 31 and August 23. Those figures represent hikes of 92% and 47%, respectively.

In the audience most desired by advertisers in news programming, people between the ages of 25 and 54, Matthews’ 7 p.m. audience is also up. Between August 26 and November 5 , ratings in the demo rose 29% to an average of 210,000 ,up from an average of about 124,000 for the month prior to the switch. The demo numbers are up 29% from an average of 163,000 for the period between December 31 and August 23.

The 7 p.m. slot “is such an important hour to launch the rest of primetime,” said Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, in an interview. “I want people to know there’s only one destination, only one time” to see Matthews each day. Previously, Griffin said, some viewers would “overlap,” watching the last half hour of the original 5 p.m. program and the first half hour of the 7 p.m. rerun.

The switch shows MSNBC attempting to marshal its forces, using a single edition of “Hardball” to generate a sizeable viewership base to funnel into its important prime-time schedule. Having more viewers for Chris Matthews at 7 p.m. means having more potential viewers to pass along to “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m., and the network, hopes, “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”

While the new original “Hardball” hour has been able to best CNN’s “Erin Burnett Oufront” handily, it has been no match for the new 7 p.m. entry from Fox News Channel, according to Nielsen data. Since “On The Record with Greta van Susteren” debuted Oct. 7, it has averaged 1.8 million viewers across its first 20 telecasts, according to Nielsen, as well as 317,000 viewers between 25 and 54. So far in November, “On the Record” is averaging more than double the number of total viewers of “Hardball,” according to Nielsen, and 77% more viewers between 25 and 54.

The recent hike in viewership makes one wonder why MSNBC has run two editions of “Hardball” for years.

“It probably should have been done a couple of years ago,”acknowledged Griffin. “When we began Chris’ double-airing, two of our three evening hours, MSNBC didn’t have that much good programming.” Indeed, when MSNBC launched “Hardball” in 1999 (after it had been airing on CNBC), “Time & Again,” a retrospective program hosted by Jane Pauley, was running in the 7 p.m. slot. Griffin said he had been reluctant to invest money in a new show, a move that would incur new costs.

As things turned out, the willingness of longtime MSNBC host Ed Schultz to return to a 5 p.m. time slot after working in primetime and, more recently, on weekends, helped Griffin decide to make the shift. “When Ed was available, I said, ‘Maybe we can do that, move ‘Hardball’ out and get another big voice,” he recounted.

Since “Ed” debuted at 5 p.m. on August 26, the average number of people watching MSNBC at that time has increased 5% to 720,000, according to Nielsen, while the average number of viewers between 25 and 54 has increased 3% to 147,000.