Friday, May 31, 2013

MSNBC’s Ratings Problem? THEY'RE BORING!

As you may have heard by now (or at least can tell by the multiple squirting orgasms over at FOX News) MSNBC’s prime time ratings have done a cliff-dive over the past two months.  Now of course the right-wing is crowing that it means the demise of liberalism (despite majority approval of same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and gun control), that the country is turning away from Obama (never mind his high approval numbers), or that the White House “scandals” are taking their toll (only so far as people just aren’t paying attention to them).  This is because the right-wing believes the rest of the country hates Obama as much as they do.  They also believe everyone needs an echo chamber of talking points fed directly into their synapses in order to feel good about themselves.  Liberals have also weighed in with theories that are equally ridiculous, citing some imagined rightward shift by the network because of comments from some of it’s more high-profile pundits like Chris Matthews.  I tend to dismiss this idea as well since to date I have yet to hear Matthews (or anyone else on the network) call Obama a Socialist, Communist, Kenyan, Nazi who’s hell-bent on destroying America.  Besides which, I’ve always felt that constructive criticism of this president, and legitimate questions about his policies, are a good thing.

When you put aside all of the hand-wringing analysis, blame-gaming, finger-pointing, and general over thinking, the reason for MSNBC’s recent ratings slide can be summed up in just two words.  CHRIS HAYES.  Now before you all click off the page and un-follow me on Twitter, I’m not bashing poor Lambchop.  I happen to like him.  He’s smart, delivers intelligent dialogue, and is not prone to hyperbole or histrionics (although he does posses a kind of wide-eyed idealism that I find annoying).  The problem is not Hayes specifically, but his show “All In”.  Quite frankly…IT’S FECKING BORING!

In cable news, the 8:00pm time slot is like Happy-Hour for political junkies.  The idea is to get the viewers to pay attention, engage them, start up a conversation that they can take back home to their crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncle.  Keith Olbermann’s bloviations and histrionics was a perfect fit for this, as was Ed Schultz’s brand of working-stiff populism, and, for the brief time he had the slot, Lawrence O’Donnell’s smug know-it-all liberalism.  Chris Hayes' brand of wonky journalism isn't a fit, and no matter how hard MSNBC tries to bang the square peg into the round hole, it's never going to be a fit.  Watching “All In” is like going to night-school.  You do it for a while, but eventually you get tired of it and by mid semester you end up dropping out.  That's what's happening with MSNBC's prime time lineup.  In the beginning “All In” attempted to duplicate the format that worked so well with Hayes’ weekend show “Up with Chris Hayes”.  Unfortunately, that format works only on weekends along with all of the other political panel shows when the only other choices are religious programming or Saturday Morning cartoons.  It does not work in a weekday prime-time slot when your competition is reality-TV, procedural dramas, and sitcoms (not to mention two other cable news networks).  As for Hayes himself, as good as he is, he seems to be less interested in engaging the viewing the audience than he is in engaging his panel of guests.  The audience is pretty much out of the loop and the result is a mutual admiration society that merely serves as background noise as people struggle to stay awake for "The Rachael Maddow Show".  They have done some tweaking, but despite their best efforts, people are still dozing off, and tuning out.  Worse, it’s affecting their entire prime-time line up.  Rachael Maddow turned in her lowest ratings since her show premiered simply because people just can’t stay awake long enough to watch.  IMO the only show that’s still worth making the effort is Lawrence O’Donnell’s “The Last Word”.

Since being acquired by Comcast, MSNBC has been making a concerted but misguided effort to shake its image of being a “liberal network”.  They’ve focused their content on being more policy oriented and becoming more “centrist” in their discussions, even going so far as bringing in conservative pundits like Steve Schmidt and Michael Steele (of course that could just as easily be because FOX won't have them).  As noble as that may seem, it's probably not the wisest move to make when you're competing against two more partisan cable news networks.  MSNBC isn't doing itself any favors by trying to be the cable news version of PBS (there's a reason PBS stations beg viewers for money every month).  It’s not a coincidence that MSNBC’s ratings troubles began the moment they replaced “The Ed Show” with “All In”.  This is a problem for them that’s not going away.  It also has to be a major ego slap to Chris Hayes.  He was given a plum weeknight time slot, and it’s just not working for him, or us.

This is a case where pride truly comes before the fall, and it’s time for MSNBC to swallow some of it now.  It’s time to bring back Ed Schultz.  Or even better, volunteer someone at the network to craw through whatever broken glass they have to and beg Keith Olbermann to come back.  Whatever they do, they need to do it soon.  As for “All In”, as much as I like Chris Hayes, sorry, but I’m out.