Part 3—Would liberals respond to a fight: MSNBC’s ratings are down from last year. At Fox, ratings are up.
Ratings are not a measure of quality, as Fox proves night after night. But people have started to wonder why MSNBC is losing viewers.
Last week, Alex Pareene examined the question under this headline: “What’s Wrong with MSNBC?” Pareene is one of the last sane observers left at Salon.
We were struck by some of the things the sardonic gentleman said.
In our view, some of Pareene’s observations aren’t entirely on point, which doesn't mean that they're wrong. In this passage, he posits a “post-election indifference to politics:”
PAREENE (5/27/13): As MSNBC suffers from post-election indifference to politics, Fox is fine because it is one part tabloid news (Arias!) and one part right-wing anger-stoking machine. The right-wing anger-stoking machine never shuts down. Talk radio turned it into a perpetual motion machine a generation ago. There’s no boom and bust, just steady, money-making rage. (Though, you know, as angry old people die the model may start to show some cracks.)MSNBC may well be suffering from some such indifference. But Fox has paid little attention to Arias in its prime-time programming. And the fact that Fox stokes right-wing anger calls attention to the very thing MSNBC fails to do at a time like this, when no election is on.
In the six months since last year's election, Fox has gone out and created a fight. By way of contrast, the children on The One True Channel have spent large amounts of time pretending that they haven’t noticed.
For us, their inexcusable flight from fight involves the way they all ran off and hid in the woods when Fox began to crucify Susan Rice last fall. Their predecessors once abandoned Naomi Wolf, then Candidate Gore. In much the same way, the children ran off and hid in the woods as Rice was savaged.
We’d kick every one of them down the stairs. As Michael Vick once remarked, “These puppies just don’t have much fight.”
As he closed his piece, Pareene, who is bright and brimming with fight, made a statement we don’t understand. We wouldn’t say the statement is wrong. He just didn't try to explain it:
PAREENE: MSNBC is actually making some good decisions, lately, from the point of view of someone who’d like (talking head) cable news to be better. And anyone who says the network’s failing because of liberalism should probably have to account for the fact that the channel’s highest-rated show remains Rachel Maddow’s. (Followed by O’Donnell, who really is the insufferable smug self-satisfied liberal caricature everyone thinks all of MSNBC is.)What are the good decisions MSNBC has been making? We’re not saying they don’t exist, but Pareene didn’t say what they are.
But do you know who watches cable news all day? And at prime time? When there’s not an election on, or a war, or some terrorism? Older conservative people. If MSNBC wants better ratings, it’ll either have to train a generation to want to pay attention to political years all the time, or it’ll have to produce a scripted show about zombies.
Pareene may be referring to Chris Hayes’ new program; he seems to semi-praise Hayes earlier in his piece. Without any question, Hayes sometimes creates good, smart cable discussions.
On the other hand, Hayes’ discussions last Wednesday night were so horrifically “twee” that the analysts flung themselves facedown in the yard and began grinding dirt in their hair. Fox was pounding away very hard with its Pseudo Scandal Machine. The entire line-up at MSNBC seemed to be busy establishing homesteads in Farthest La-La Land.
If MSNBC hopes to “train a generation” to “pay attention to [politics] all the time,” that just can’t be the way to do it. This brings us to the part of Pareene’s piece which we thought jumped off the page.
In our view, every part of this passage is well worth considering. We were especially drawn to the highlighted speculation:
PAREENE: It’s simplistic to say that viewers aren’t watching because the president’s having a bad news cycle. Bad news is often good for ratings. Liberals like to watch Republicans portrayed as big scary meanies when they’re not watching them be presented as inept nutso clowns. There was no such thing as liberal cable news during the Clinton impeachment, but if there had been I guarantee it would’ve been a hit. Maybe—maybe!—some viewers are tuning out because they’re not hearing enough of an unqualified defense of the president and his administration from some of MSNBC’s more left-leaning voices. But I’d guess that’s still not enough people to make a huge ratings difference.We agree with Pareene’s first point. In theory, bad political news can be good for ratings. It's often said that political talkers do better when the other side wins.
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.
That said, would the current version of MSNBC have had big ratings during Clinton’s impeachment? Not if its hosts approached impeachment in the way they’ve approached the Scandal Wars which started on Fox last September. They have run and hid from those Wars in precisely the way the liberal world ran and hid from the various “Whitewater” pseudo-scandals which preceded and paved the way for the year of impeachment. In the way liberals ran and hid from the War Against Gore which came next.
This brings us to Pareene’s double-edged portrait of MSNBC and its liberal viewers.
What are we liberals actually like? Pareene is less than flattering. Liberals “like to watch Republicans portrayed as big scary meanies when they’re not watching them be presented as inept nutso clowns,” the gentleman says, making us sound like the low-IQ fools MSNBC often seems to assume we are.
Do liberals enjoy watching Republicans portrayed as nutso clowns? That seemed to be the theory last Wednesday when the millionaire hosts on The One True Channel treated us to simpering reruns of Michele Bachmann’s greatest flubs, even as Fox News was exploding with the new generation of powerful pseudo-scandals.
We liberals got to watch the children assure us that Bachmann really was nutso. As we wasted our time in this way, Sean and Bill were hammering much larger audiences with the kinds of bogus claims the children have been avoiding since last September.
“Maybe—maybe!—some viewers are tuning out because they’re not hearing enough of an unqualified defense of the president and his administration from some of MSNBC’s more left-leaning voices,” Pareene speculated in his piece, not being entirely clear as to what he meant.
He didn’t pretend to know if that’s true. We can’t tell you either. But as we watch our team's corporate-picked cable hosts, we’ve never seen a bunch of people who had so little desire to fight—except perhaps for their salaries, their Q-ratings and their careers.
Would MSNBC have more viewers if its hosts got off their asses and tried to fight a real fight? Like Pareene, we can’t answer that question, but we can tell you this:
Last night, shortly after 9, the congratulatory phone calls began rolling in all over our sprawling campus. People thought they saw Rachel Maddow fighting back, in precisely the way we had scripted in yesterday morning’s post.
That isn’t what we thought we saw. To watch the segment in question, click here.
What did we think we saw last night? We thought we saw the limited effort of a millionaire star who doesn’t know how to fight.
Tomorrow: When Bill and Rachel fight