we’ve got other things to do

Hands are being wrung in consternation because MSNBC finished in fourth place in the cable news ratings wars in May, repeating their April performance, behind not only the sitcom-masking-as-news-operation that is CNN, but also behind CNN’s mentally unhinged cousin, Headline News (Fox is obviously first always because Amercia).

Another month of big crime and disaster news saw the network struggle to keep up with rivals CNN, HLN and Fox News. MSNBC was presumably expecting some dropoff from its 2012 numbers, since that was an election year, but it still landed in fourth place behind the other channels, a victim of HLN’s Jodi Arias-fueled surge and of President Obama’s scandal-ridden, defensive month. Overall, MSNBC saw its lowest total day viewer numbers since 2007, and its lowest prime time numbers since 2009.

Alex Pareene contends that this is not a problem with MSNBC’s liberal (prime-time) programming, but more a weakness in MSNBC’s overall focus on political talk:

“Morning Joe” is the lowest rated of the big three cable news morning shows in both total viewers and the younger demographic. Fox News’ Red Eye — a show Fox airs at 3 in the morning — had more total and 25-54-year-old viewers in April 2013 than “Morning Joe” did. “Morning Joe” in April 2013 was down, from its April 2012 numbers, in total and in young viewers by a greater percentage than the rest of the network as a whole.

I’m not harping on “Morning Joe” because I think the show is representative of everything wrong with contemporary political elite thinking, though it is, but because it illustrates MSNBC’s larger problem: It’s a political talk show. Every other TV morning show is mostly fluff and weather. “Morning Joe,” instead of entertainment news updates, has a former member of Congress wave a newspaper at Mark Halperin for a while. MSNBC’s target audience may just be much less interested in listening to people talk about politics in spring 2013 than they were during an election year.

Digby notices the same drop-off online and suspects disillusionment:

I don’t think that’s it. People aren’t taking the scandals all that seriously (so far.) And I’m with pareene that if the Republicans really get crazy, the audience will come back. Short of that (or something else catastrophic) my impression is that liberals are either bored or disillusioned right now for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a liberal majority has been effectively obstructed and the president seems to be ineffectual. (I realize that political scientists tell us that the presidency isn’t very powerful, but most people don’t believe that since we’ve extolled the office as the most powerful on earth for decades.)

I don’t see this as a great mystery, because I remember all the way back in the distant past, the 2010 midterm elections, where the Democratic base (youngsters and minorities) couldn’t even be motivated to show up to vote in an election (although considering how much voting is made to suck in this country, both intentionally and just because we’re lazy and stupid, maybe I shouldn’t blame them too much). Of course, the 2010 results turned into yet another excuse for liberals, progressives, lefties, whatever you want to call them, to turn on each other for being insufficiently loyal/unconscionably devoted to the proudly liberal/disappointingly center-right Obama administration, thereby driving voters away from the polls somehow because we all know that Democratic voters rely on progressive activists on Twitter and blogs to build up their pre-election enthusiasm. But, hell, the White House soup of the day can cause various pockets of the Democratic coalition to turn on various other pockets, activists with their couple thousand Twitter followers accusing other activists with their couple thousand Twitter followers of destroying all hope for a liberal resurgence in America because something something what they Tweeted that one time about President Obama/dirty hippies. Does anybody really believe that kind of stuff affects voter turnout? 2010 was a double-whammy, because in addition to the fact that the party controlling the White House usually does poorly in its first midterm election (W, post-9/11 and in a time of war, is the only president since FDR to reverse this pattern), the bottom line is that the Democratic base just doesn’t turn out for midterm elections.

What does this have to do with MSNBC’s ratings, or the state of online liberalism? Well, if you can’t keep the liberal coalition enthusiastic enough to vote one extra time in between presidential elections, why the hell would you think you could get them to tune into three hours of liberal TV every night, or read a bunch of liberal blogs all day long when there’s no pressing political event taking place? I keep doing this stuff because I’m a misanthrope and my wife is a kind and patient person, but even I have to admit that I’d rather be watching hockey or seeing a movie (or, hey, working steadily would be nice, also too, not that I’m trolling around for that sort of thing or anything) than constantly keeping myself immersed in political news. I don’t think it has anything to do with “scandal fatigue,” because these “scandals” have so far fizzled out in the world outside the right-wing conspiracy bunker. I doubt that much of it is because folks are disillusioned with President Obama’s inability to get anything done, because this administration actually had a fairly productive first two years in office by historical standards and still couldn’t get people to show up on Election Day, 2010. It can’t be because CNN suddenly stopped sucking, because, well, they haven’t. Lots of folks seem to put the blame squarely on Chris Hayes’ new 8 PM show, which has been a ratings flop, and there may be something to that, but I don’t think the entire network’s day-long ratings problems can all be foisted on one show. I’m skeptical of the idea that a weak lead-in can, on its own, bring down Maddow’s ratings like this in the age of ubiquitous remote controls and DVRs, but obviously I could be completely wrong in my skepticism. Now, I don’t have facts to back this up,

"Go on..."
“Go on…”

but I very much suspect that Pareene is right on the money with this:

Perhaps there just isn’t a huge, permanent, year-round liberal audience for political news and discussion. Which is effectively all MSNBC does, because political discussion is cheap as hell, and gets good ratings when certain periods and certain personalities align. Young liberals tune in during election years. The rest of the time they keep up with the news online (or on “The Daily Show”) and spend their evenings watching actual TV. Like, “Game of Thrones” and stuff.

Certainly, although I kid them because they kill a tiny part of America’s soul every day, CNN does have something to do with their own ratings picking up, although between the Jody Arias case (which might as well have been scripted for the shouty legal types on Headline News), the Boston bombing and manhunt, the tornadoes, the West, TX, explosion, they’ve benefited from having a lot of Big Stories fall into their laps of late. As an aside, this is why I sometimes harp on CNN to try doing real news for a change instead of whatever it does now, but I don’t give MSNBC grief for the fact that they hardly ever eschew political talk for actual news. MSNBC is what it is: a 24-hour televised talk show being run on the cheap and closely related to a network news division that sees itself as the real news gathering part of the outfit. MSNBC will never spend the money to do genuine news coverage, or risk conflict with NBC’s news division by straying on to their turf. CNN, on the other hand, has the resources and the platform to do genuine news coverage, it just chooses to run a 24-hour gag reel instead.

I’m going to offer a gross generalization: MSNBC’s mostly-liberal audience is an audience that mostly tolerates, but does not like, politics. It sees politics as a means to an end, useful when it comes time to elect a president and important when the other side is on the attack, but mostly arcane, incredibly frustrating (particularly right now), and a little bit boring. Sure they might be more energized if things were going better, but they still most likely wouldn’t be tuning in at anywhere close to the numbers they were a year ago, because it’s a big world full of lots of more interesting and fulfilling things (for them) than politics. It’s probably healthier for these would-be MSNBC viewers that they’re not all news-and-rage, all the time, like Fox viewers, but it may be unfortunate for MSNBC and liberal media in general. We already know that liberal voting apathy can hurt at election time, but liberal viewing apathy may wind up causing MSNBC to go in another direction. Anybody who thinks that a mega-corporation like Comcast won’t drop MSNBC’s liberal prime-time slant in a millisecond, if it finds a good excuse to do so, is probably fooling themselves.

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