MSNBC Seeks New Voices To Help It Regain Ratings Ground

MSNBC Liberal Makeover Phil Griffin
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When Jose Diaz-Balart launched his new hour-long show on MSNBC earlier this summer, he had a guest who spoke only Spanish. And he did what he often does from his regular perch on Telemundo when an English speaker appears on the broadcast:  He translated, in real time.

The guest was a woman directly involved in the immigration problem challenging the United States, and having an outside translator on the show struck Diaz-Balart as less than genuine. “It struck me as such a natural thing to do. When you talk about kids who are crossing the border,” he said to reporters Tuesday. “How do you put on the voice of a translator? How do you do that?”

On cable news, such stuff is unorthodox, but David Schoetz, the executive producer of MSNBC’s emerging 10 a.m. program, says the technique works. “We’re going to keep doing it, he said. “You can see that people are rallying around the legitimacy of having that voice.”

Giving time to new voices is a strategy that MSNBC is re-emphasizing as it seeks to take back ground it has ceded to rival CNN. In the third quarter, the Time Warner outlet, which has ratings woes of its own,   saw all its daytime programming  airing between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. trump MSNBC’s. “We are experimenting,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, at a meeting with reporters Tuesday. “And if you are not experimenting, you should not be here.”

In Griffin’s view, a broadcaster like Diaz-Balart is an investment in the future.  The U.S. Hispanic population has grown 50% from 2000 to 2012, to 53 million people, according to the Pew Research Center, with most of that growth coming from births in the U.S. rather than new immigrants. The newsman, who will continue to anchor Telemundo’s evening newscast “Noticiero Telemundo” and its Sunday public-affairs program “Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart,” wants to shine a light on issues involving immigration reform and Latin American economics  that aren’t always on viewers’ radar.

He expects these topics to play an increasing role in American politics, especially as the nation’s Latino population grows.  By 2016, he suggested, what happens in Brazil or Argentina will have greater impact on the United States, and the growing debate around immigration reform is only going to swell.

Diaz-Balart brings new perspective to MSNBC’s daytime lineup, replacing Chris Jansing, who left her 10 a.m. roost at the outlet to become NBC News’ White House correspondent.  His show is broadcast from Miami, where he also does his Telemundo program, though some production staffers are based in New York.

Diaz-Balart hopes his program gains consideration from for political candidates. As Latino politicians like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio gain more influence in national affairs, the show would seem like a natural venue, but he also hopes candidates for President will keep the program in consideration. “I want them to, and it would serve them well to do it,” Diaz-Balart said, particularly if they want to speak to a growing segment of the country’s population.

His new show is influencing other parts of MSNBC’s schedule, Griffin said, by bringing new voices and experts on the air. Diaz-Balart would rather interview a person who is affected by a controversy or issue than a lawmaker who may have an opinion on it.  “It is critical to have him there and the show is slowly becoming a model of what we should be doing,” the executive said. “If we are narrow and small, we are not going to grow.”

MSNBC’s moves come as most news outlets experience a long-term decline in overall viewership. Primetime viewership of the three major news channels—CNN, Fox News and MSNBC—dropped in 2013 by 11% to about 3 million, according to a Pew Research Center report on news media in 2014 –  the smallest it has been since 2007. The biggest decline came at MSNBC, Pew said, citing Nielsen data, which lost 24% of its primetime audience.

MSNBC seems to be attempting to suss out issues that will be relevant to growing segments of U.S. consumers. The network this past weekend aired a primetime concert aimed at sparking global activism. And it has sought out non-traditional voices, like Ronan Farrow, whose early afternoon program has received some criticism despite focusing on issues more relevant to millenials than boomers.

Giving on-air real estate to people who aren’t “blow-dried anchors” is a considered one, said Griffin, who praised Farrow’s efforts.  “I’m in this for the long term,” he said. “We have to get different voices.”