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

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.

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.”

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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