To conservatives, CNN is more mockable than MSNBC. MSNBC is open about its liberal biases, while CNN claims it is a moderate alternative, immersed in only facts. Teasing a liar is more rewarding than the shameless counterpart admitting their narrow-mindedness. CNN also promotes its rare viewership spikes during breaking news periods. Meanwhile, MSNBC’s self-promotion machine is quiet and ineffective. While CNN has two in-house media critics, Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy, paid to bash Fox News, MSNBC stays mostly out of the media beat. And finally, CNN’s total viewership is smaller than MSNBC, creating an easier target.
Because of those results, mainstream media detractors have covered CNN’s fall this year and mostly ignored MSNBC’s, aside from a few gross clips of Joy Reid. Yet, despite the warranted mockery of CNN, MSNBC is the network with the graver set of challenges.
In summer, CNN’s primetime programming failed to reach a million viewers. To see that fall was stunning. How could a cable news network’s primetime shows not hit at least a million viewers? It was unheard of. Now, even more telling, MSNBC has joined CNN at that location.
On Friday, two of MSNBC’s primetime programs fell under the 1 million mark, The ReidOut (7 pm) and The Last Word (10 pm ). Those shows are terrible in quality yet have always managed to get at least a million retired liberals to tune in.
Joy Reid and Laurence O'Donnell again join CNN's entire prime-time line up in falling below the humiliating line of 1 million total viewers. Joy has fewer viewers than the shows before & after her. Don Lemon & Anderson Cooper barely getting 500k total. Almost no viewers under 55. pic.twitter.com/OVJwfiYEBw
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 5, 2021
What’s alarming for MSNBC is Chris Hayes is limping and trending in the same direction. MSNBC’s total reach is eroding without Donald Trump to focus on. The network is now clawing for outrage, and desperate for any white guy to emerge as a “threat to Democracy.” To be clear, MSNBC’s viewers don’t mind if the subject is an actual threat, but it can’t be a cable news host. It must be someone who influences the government. Tucker Carlson is a fun target, but he is not the answer as a replacement for Trump.
MSNBC viewers see CNN’s demise and think their network is fine. That is incorrect. Though MSNBC leads CNN in total viewership, CNN is pulling away in the 25-54 demographic.
Cable news executives measure success based on that age demographic. The viewership in the category is the number the networks present to advertisers in return for ad rates. So if a network slumps among adults 25-54, its ad revenue will decline the following year (unless it takes this temporary approach Today and GMA tried). Enter MSNBC.
Here are the viewership averages in the demo for the third quarter of 2021, (6/28/21 to 09/24/210):
Fox News: 227,000
Fox News: 377,000
Notably, MSNBC is struggling in the demo during primetime hours. The Rachel Maddow Show led the company in the category with 285,000 viewers, the 8th highest show of the quarter. Then came the dropoff. All In with Chris Hayes ranked second at MSNBC, down to 22nd. MSNBC would be non-competitive in the primetime demo if it weren’t for Maddow, just as the network is during the day. What’s more, that’s a preview, not a hypothetical.
MSNBC is preparing for Maddow to depart its daytime lineup in 2022 as she moves to a weekly program. In response, MSNBC is mulling over a list of B-level replacements. Whether Fox News and CNN rise or fall in 2022, MSNBC will undeniably experience the latter.
MSNBC’s viewers will not stay because Maddow used to be there. We know this because the network’s viewers won’t even keep the channel on for The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, which airs at 10 pm, immediately following Maddow’s show.
On average, around a million viewers turn MSNBC off after Maddow hands the keys to O’Donnell. Maddow’s handoff to her replacement could lead to a similar viewership trend. It doesn’t matter if MSNBC replaces Maddow with Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, or some other progressive. When Maddow leaves, her viewers follow. Perhaps they go to Twitter?
MSNBC’s trajectory includes a declining base audience, a disconnect from the coveted demographic, and the impending departure of its sole individual draw. It’s hard to find three worse issues for a cable news network.
MSNBC desperately needs Maddow to change her mind and stay, for Donald Trump to win in 2024, and for another Russia hoax. Unfortunately, MSNBC controls only that last hope.
CNN is a mess. Two of its primetime hosts are creeps. And still, CNN is better off than MSNBC moving forward.