Commentary Magazine


Topic: television ratings

Obama’s Latest Victim: MSNBC

As his sinking poll ratings have demonstrated, a lot of Americans are unhappy with President Obama. Weak leadership abroad, ObamaCare, and various scandals have all combined to send his popularity into a tailspin from which he is not likely to recover before the end of his term in office. But perhaps the ones who should be most angry with him are his biggest fans in the media rather than his conservative antagonists. Like the World War Two era pop classic teaches us, Obama is demonstrating that “you always hurt the ones you love.”

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, a new study from the Pew Research Journalism Project that incorporates Nielson ratings data shows that MSNBC is bleeding viewers and revenue at a pace that outstrips the rest of the cable news market. While Fox and CNN have both lost ground as the television market becomes more fractured by the vast number of choices available to viewers, in 2013 the left-wing network lost a staggering 24 percent of its prime-time audience and 15 percent of those who watch during the day. That is double the losses experienced by CNN and four times those of Fox. On the revenue side of things, while Fox and CNN are growing, MSNBC is losing income.

What’s the reason for this? The answer, according to Byers, is obvious. The network established itself as a liberal destination by being the place where viewers knew to go for criticism of George W. Bush and then celebrations of Barack Obama. But as Obama begins his slide into second-term irrelevance, left-wingers are no longer finding it entertaining to tune into the NBC knock-off network to watch talking heads parrot administration talking points and trash Republicans. Like fans of a sports team that is playing out the string in a season where they won’t make the playoffs, liberals are giving up and tuning out.

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As his sinking poll ratings have demonstrated, a lot of Americans are unhappy with President Obama. Weak leadership abroad, ObamaCare, and various scandals have all combined to send his popularity into a tailspin from which he is not likely to recover before the end of his term in office. But perhaps the ones who should be most angry with him are his biggest fans in the media rather than his conservative antagonists. Like the World War Two era pop classic teaches us, Obama is demonstrating that “you always hurt the ones you love.”

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, a new study from the Pew Research Journalism Project that incorporates Nielson ratings data shows that MSNBC is bleeding viewers and revenue at a pace that outstrips the rest of the cable news market. While Fox and CNN have both lost ground as the television market becomes more fractured by the vast number of choices available to viewers, in 2013 the left-wing network lost a staggering 24 percent of its prime-time audience and 15 percent of those who watch during the day. That is double the losses experienced by CNN and four times those of Fox. On the revenue side of things, while Fox and CNN are growing, MSNBC is losing income.

What’s the reason for this? The answer, according to Byers, is obvious. The network established itself as a liberal destination by being the place where viewers knew to go for criticism of George W. Bush and then celebrations of Barack Obama. But as Obama begins his slide into second-term irrelevance, left-wingers are no longer finding it entertaining to tune into the NBC knock-off network to watch talking heads parrot administration talking points and trash Republicans. Like fans of a sports team that is playing out the string in a season where they won’t make the playoffs, liberals are giving up and tuning out.

All cable stations are hurt by the digital revolution that has transformed television watching and diminished the clout of all stations on the dial. Cable news networks are also particularly vulnerable to the political cycle, with boom times during elections and important events and declines when nothing particularly interesting is happening. But MSNBC is in a particularly tight spot because of the nature of their political bias.

As I wrote last year when the previous Pew report on the media was published, the research breaking down the various cable news stations’ broadcasts showed that MSNBC was the most biased of all the networks. While the majority of commentary on Fox is conservative, they still run a respectable amount of straight news and generally always provide a liberal foil to their right-wing talkers even if the sole left-winger is always outnumbered. But on MSNBC, the liberal mindset is uniform with few of their shows even bothering to interview stray conservatives, let alone let alone feature them on a regular basis even as tokens. Other than Chuck Todd’s Morning Rundown which provides relatively fair coverage and as good a daily take on the political scene as is available on television, the only break on their schedule from left-wing uniformity comes from Joe Scarborough, the co-host of their morning show. But though Scarborough can go off on rants that displease MSNBC’s viewers, he spent much of 2013 reading from the liberal hymnal about gun control and denouncing the Tea Party. Meanwhile just about everyone else on that show and the rest of their network lineup is a reliable font of left-wing conventional wisdom.

MSNBC’s efforts to counteract the effect of an aging audience with younger, inexperienced, and often incompetent hosts like Ronan Farrow have been laughable failures. As Byers rightly points out, any thought about lowering the age of the average viewer is belied by the catheter ads that punctuate the shows hosted by such ingénues. Having bet their future on the concept of a network that would be more liberal than Fox was conservative, the network has a lot to lose if Democrats become apathetic in the waning days of a lame-duck Obama administration. But its corporate masters at NBC should cheer up. If conservatives do take back Congress this year and perhaps even elect a Republican in 2016, depressed liberals will need an outlet for the derangement syndrome that will be named after whomever it is the GOP nominates for the presidency in two years. If so, MSNBC will be there to give it to them.

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The Presidential Debate Reality Show

Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

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Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

Obama’s problem is not whether he can improve on his first debate. He can hardly help doing so. But outright wins like Romney’s are actually fairly rare in presidential debates. It takes either a brilliant speaker who shows up an opponent (Reagan telling Carter, “There you go again”) or a candidate making an egregious gaffe (Gerald Ford liberating Soviet-occupied Poland) or not showing up looking either prepared or acting as if he cared (Obama). Even if he holds his own, Romney will have to screw up for it to seem anything like a real win and the GOP standard-bearer is too detail-oriented and focused to allow that to happen.

Yet even if the president is able to convince the media that he came out slightly ahead, if the audience for the second debate is significantly smaller than the first, it won’t be much of a victory. Even a spin avalanche can’t make it as important as the first debate if far fewer Americans watch it.

That said the widespread assumption that the second debate will be less of a big deal might turn out to be wrong. If there was anything that we learned from the seemingly endless string of Republican primary debates last winter it is that each of them helped build the audience for those that followed. Granted, the audiences were far smaller, but they were nevertheless significant, as the series of GOP debates became the nation’s favorite political reality show.

That lesson may not apply to a debate that appeals to more than the political junkies who regularly watch cable news stations. But given the fact that the first debate appears to have fundamentally altered the direction of the campaign, there is a chance that there may not be as significant a drop-off in the ratings for the second one as many expect. As with the GOP debates, the mere fact that the first one was not the usual draw will impel more viewers to watch to see if this week’s episode will have its own surprises. Either way, the size of the audience will play a major role in determining how important it will turn out to be.

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Debate Ratings Show Obama Picked the Wrong Night to Flop

The biggest difference between discussing the outcome of a sporting event and a political debate is that the outcome of the former is, or at least ought to be, objectively determined by the score while the latter is, almost by definition, a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, though debates are often muddled affairs with no clear winners or losers, some are fairly clear-cut in their impact. Wednesday night’s set-to between President Obama and Mitt Romney was one such encounter. The left-wing talkers on MSNBC, the establishment types chattering on CNN and the conservatives on Fox News all agreed Romney won hands down. But the post-debate pushback from Democrats has centered not only on disingenuous “fact checking” but on the idea that the debate either didn’t matter much or that the Republican’s superiority was a superficial effect that dissipates on closer inspection. But in this case the liberal spinners have a problem: the audience.

It turns out ratings for this debate went through the roof. The Nielson ratings agency reports that 67.2 million Americans watched the debate on television at home. That’s the second highest audience for such a debate in history (number one was the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980). And that doesn’t count those who either watched it in airports, hotels, bars or other venues or the many millions who watched it on their computers, tablets or phones. In other words, the president picked the wrong night to mail in his performance.

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The biggest difference between discussing the outcome of a sporting event and a political debate is that the outcome of the former is, or at least ought to be, objectively determined by the score while the latter is, almost by definition, a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, though debates are often muddled affairs with no clear winners or losers, some are fairly clear-cut in their impact. Wednesday night’s set-to between President Obama and Mitt Romney was one such encounter. The left-wing talkers on MSNBC, the establishment types chattering on CNN and the conservatives on Fox News all agreed Romney won hands down. But the post-debate pushback from Democrats has centered not only on disingenuous “fact checking” but on the idea that the debate either didn’t matter much or that the Republican’s superiority was a superficial effect that dissipates on closer inspection. But in this case the liberal spinners have a problem: the audience.

It turns out ratings for this debate went through the roof. The Nielson ratings agency reports that 67.2 million Americans watched the debate on television at home. That’s the second highest audience for such a debate in history (number one was the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980). And that doesn’t count those who either watched it in airports, hotels, bars or other venues or the many millions who watched it on their computers, tablets or phones. In other words, the president picked the wrong night to mail in his performance.

That means those who wish to convince the country that what they saw shouldn’t impact their opinions or vote must deal with the fact that most people will trust the evidence of their own eyes and ears over someone else’s interpretation. As today’s first round of post-debate polls show, the debate had a clear impact on public opinion and no amount of carping from the liberal media is likely to alter that fact.

There seems to be general surprise not only about the size of the audience but also about the idea that people take these things seriously. But anyone who paid close attention to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination won by Romney ought to have remembered how important the innumerable debates conducted over the course of what seemed an interminable race turned out to be.

Indeed, what was so remarkable about the debates was not just the way they seemed to shape the campaign but how large and influential the audience for these confrontations was. For several months, each debate helped build the audience for the one that followed, as they became what the country quickly recognized as a popular and long-running political reality show. The debates will be chiefly remembered for giving Romney the training he needed to prepare for Obama. But they also gave Herman Cain the notoriety he needed to sustain his ill-fated candidacy far longer than his meager qualifications or grasp of the issues should have merited. They gave Newt Gingrich a couple of brief moments on the top of the heap, boosted Rick Santorum for a while and also conclusively sank the hopes of Rick Perry.

Perhaps if President Obama had been paying attention to all of this, he might have taken the Denver event seriously enough to thoroughly prepare for it. But having failed to do so and then flopped, he must now deal with the fact that a considerable portion of the voting population can now compare him to Romney as easily as those who watched the last Super Bowl were able to judge the talents of the New York Giants and New England Patriots.

The Democrats may curse the fates all they like, but they can no more convince most Americans that Romney is the monster they claimed him to be now than can the supporters of the Patriots beguile the public into believing their team won.

The only silver lining for the Democrats is that the hubbub about Romney and Obama will likely help, as was the case with the GOP series, build the audience for the subsequent debates. That will give Obama two more shots at Romney. But having now confounded the Democrats’ attempts to define him, the Republican has already gained a victory that cannot be retroactively rescinded.

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