'I think 
there’s room for three networks, and one of these programming switches will hit.
   I don’t have a ready answer for what they should do, but they deserve credit for trying something
 new.'

 

 

  MSNBC's right turn
may not hit a wall

Dump the libs. Out-Fox Fox. Geez, it could work.

By Kevin Downey

   The trouble with being a balanced cable news network, as MSNBC learned, is that you have to balance those moderates and conservatives with liberal voices, which means people like Phil Donahue.
  In the case of third-lagging MSNBC, that meant creating yet another annoyance for co-parent NBC to go along with embarrassingly low ratings. NBC suits, not intellectually daring folk, were uneasy with Donahue's often over-wrought lefty rants in a nation preparing for war.
   So it's out with balance and onto conservatives at the identity-challenged cable network co-owned by Microsoft, in what now appears an attempt to out-right Fox News.
   It's also on to a new tagline. Out is "America's News Channel" and in is the mumble-inducing and equally non-defining “NBC News on Cable 24 Hours a Day.” 
   So here's the question: Has the cable news channel that's ever-repositioning itself risk finally turning off viewers with this latest change?
   Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no.
   In sum, our experts tell us, MSNBC has far more to gain than lose if, in turning right, it begins to at last build viewership. Which is another way of saying it doesn't have all that much to lose.
    “I think there’s room for three networks, and one of these programming switches will hit,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director at Horizon Media.
   “I don’t have a ready answer for what they should do, but they deserve credit for trying something new.”
   Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees.
   “It’s a positive change insofar as what they have now is not working,” he says. “But there is nothing to say that the changes are not going to make matters worse.”
   Changes, it appears, were dictated from the top of NBC News.
   An in-house study of MSNBC that leaked out over recent days suggests that Donahue's ouster was not because of low ratings or the cost of the show, as MSNBC contends, but rather because of Donahue's political opinions. The study tagged the back-from-retirement '70s afternoon talker as a dangerous leftist and not the person to have around in a nation set to go to war, especially when Fox and CNN were waving the U.S. flag.
   Fact was, while Donahue's ratings were weak against those of  Fox News's “The O’Reilly Factor” and CNN’s “Connie Chung Tonight”--O'Reilly pulled almost six times the audience of Donahue's 8 p.m. show--Donahue, with only seven months on the air, had the best primetime ratings on the network.
   As MSNBC takes public heat for dumping Donahue, it is taking even more heat for hiring the likes of rightist radio ranter Michael Savage, a regular irritant to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Organization for Women for quips about women and minorities (Sample: "The gay and lesbian mafia wants our children."). 
   Savage joins ex-Minnesota governor and former fake wrestler Jesse Ventura and conservative Texan Dick Armey, former House majority leader, as part of MSNBC's new lineup of chatters.
   The risk MSNBC faces if it attempts to out-right Fox News is that it must step far enough to the right to avoid blurring in with Fox, but how far to the right of Fox can a network go without facing charges of hate-mongering?
   It will be a challenge, and MSNBC has a long way to go.
   The network’s adult 25-54 audience, the key demographic for most news networks, was less than one-third the size of Fox News’ audience in the February sweeps.
   Fox News had an average 691,000 viewers in primetime. CNN had 357,000 and MSNBC had 194,000.
   While MSNBC’s audience was up 35 percent in the sweeps through Sunday, Fox News was up 53 percent and CNN was up 41 percent.
   MSNBC did even worse on an all-day basis, with a decline of 11 percent compared to this time last year, while Fox News was up 65 percent and CNN was up 61 percent.
   “I think what we may be seeing is that after several years of having three 24-hour news networks that there isn’t an audience to support all three of them,” says Thompson.
   “When Sept. 11 happened, the news networks had the story of the century, which increased ratings for all of them. What we have now is the networks trying to figure out how to pull an audience outside of those stories.”
   The approach MSNBC is abandoning positioned it as a liberal alternative to Fox News, but that proved harder to pull off than MSNBC imagined.
   “The problem with the nature of those politics, which tend to look at many sides of an issue, is that it may appear wishy-washy,” says Thompson.
   “In the end, what brings an audience to these shows is someone with an attitude. What they need now is to stick with a philosophy, but with someone with dramatic appeal like O’Reilly.”
   The worry is that in stepping to the right, MSNBC will offend its own audience.
   “MSNBC is trying to out-right Fox News, maybe thinking that’s where the audience is,” says Reese Schonfeld, who co-founded and was president and chief executive officer of CNN until 1982.
   “I’m not so sure. If they are trying to find an identity for themselves, being the most conservative could be perceived by some people as being prejudiced or racist.”
   Horizon Media’s Adgate, on the hand, sees a positive outcome, at least in the short-term.
   “I think controversy breeds awareness, which could breed ratings,” he says.
    “Look at Howard Stern. A lot of people hate him, but he’s a gold mine. If advertisers are comfortable, I think there will be enough of a buzz for people to try it out.”

February 27, 2003© 2003 Media Life


-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.


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