A bit strangely, one might suggest: We interrupt our career as a critic of standard group novels to bring you this business report:
The report appeared in the Business section of Tuesday's New York Times. Beneath a four-column-wide photo of an unnamed cable news host, the headline said this:
"MSNBC Surges to an Unfamiliar Spot: No. 1"
Say what? MSNBC has surged to the top of the cable news game? Michael Grynbaum's news report started off like this:
GRYNBAUM (6/10/17): The last time that MSNBC was No. 1 in prime-time cable news, Bill Clinton was president, Madonna led the Billboard charts and ''Friends'' still ran new episodes on TV.From that text, a reader might get the impression that MSNBC is "No. 1 in prime-time cable news."
Seventeen years and a few rebrandings later, the network is back on top—buoyed by a surge of interest in news and the channel's stable of reliably liberal anchors, like Rachel Maddow, who have found their groove amid a time of intense anxiety for the political left.
Would such an impression be correct? On balance, we'd have to say no.
Don't get us wrong! MSNBC has shown amazing gains in viewership during the era of Donald J. Trump.
Led by that same Rachel Maddow, its fiery anchors rolled over and died during the gentleman's rise to the top.
Now that that gentleman sits in the White House, the network's numbers are way, way up, due to that "time of intense anxiety for the political left"—and, of course, due to an ongoing, highly dramatic chase.
MSNBC's numbers are way, way up. Does that mean the channel is now number one, as the New York Times headline proclaimed?
On balance, we'd say the answer is no. This was Grynbaum's next paragraph:
GRYNBAUM (continuing directly): The MSNBC resurgence—in May, it beat its rivals for the highest prime-time viewership on weeknights in the critical 25-to-54 age demographic, up an astounding 118 percent from a year earlier—is part of a newly shifting landscape in television news, and within the channel itself.Say what? MSNBC beat its rivals last month "for the highest prime-time viewership on weeknights in the critical 25-to-54 age demographic?"
We count three qualifiers in that description. (Prime time; weeknights; the critical 25-54 age group.) Does that mean that MSNBC isn't number one overall? Is it only number one at those times among that "critical demographic?"
And by the way, what makes that one demographic so "critical?" Why was it singled out?
If these questions came to mind while you were reading this news report, you were in for a world of hurt. Grynbaum's report included 1060 words spread over thirty-one paragraphs. But, for reasons which went unexplained, Grynbaum made little attempt to answer such obvious questions.
MSNBC's ratings are indeed way up. For ourselves, we think its journalism is rather poor. But we're looking here at Grynbaum's report, not at MSNBC's journalistic performance.
In what sense is MSNBC number one? Let's try to figure that out!
In what sense is MSNBC number one? In paragraph 17, Grynbaum drops a possible hint in the passages we highlight:
GRYNBAUM: Unsurprisingly, MSNBC's rivals are less than impressed.By now, readers had a right to be completely confused. According to Grynbaum, it sounds like Fox is number one if you count all the hours in the day, along with all the days in the week.
A CNN spokeswoman, Barbara Levin, referred to CNN as ''the one nonpartisan cable news network'' and noted the anchors Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper had beaten MSNBC in their time slots last month in the crucial demographic.
''These highly partisan times have clearly been good news for MSNBC's opinion programming,'' Ms. Levin wrote.
Fox News executives pointed out that their network won in weekday prime-time viewers over all—a less crucial statistic for advertisers, but a testament to the network's continued influence. Fox was also No. 1 in May when weekends and all parts of the 24-hour broadcast day were measured.
It sounds like Fox might even be number one in weekday prime-time if you count all the viewers! Why the heck would you want to do things like that, this news report seems to ask.
We get a clue to Grynbaum's method in the last paragraph we have posted, his paragraph 17. In it, Grynbaum says, somewhat comically, that all viewers, as opposed to that one age group, constitute "a less critical statistic for advertisers."
We're sorry, but we'd call that "found humor."
Readers, let's talk. People like Grynbaum focus on that "critical 25-to-54 age demographic" because, for reasons which typically go unexplained, that's the slice of the population advertisers care about.
If we understand correctly, that demographic is "critical" because it's the demographic which is used to set a channel's ad rates. In other words, that's the demographic which largely determines how much $$$$ a channel will make.
For that reason, that age group is "critical" to the various corporate suits. But should it be "critical" to New York Times readers?
We're going to say it shouldn't be. Here's why:
The simplest glance at cable news ratings will demonstrate a key fact—that "critical" age group constitutes well less than half the overall cable news audience.
On Tuesday, June 6, for example—that's the day Grynbaum's report appeared—the Maddow Show attracted 783,000 viewers in that "critical" 25-54 age group.
Overall, the show attracted 3.166 million viewers that night! That "critical" age group was roughly one-quarter of the program's overall audience! The large majority of Maddow's viewers were not in that "critical" group.
Briefly, let's be fair. Grynbaum's report appeared in the New York Times' Business section. In the narrowest sense, his focus on that "critical demographic" reflected the perspective of the "suits" who run these "cable news" channels.
They dole out seven- and eight-figure salaries to the kinds of hosts who can attract us rubes, especially if we're in that age group. That demographic is "critical" to them, on a $$$$ basis.
Let's end our fairness right there. Grynbaum's report ventured well beyond the narrow boundaries of profit and loss. Late in his piece, he even discussed "the surprising resurrection of Brian Williams," who is staging a comeback on cable after being "tarnished by a fabulism scandal," a scandal engineered by fake news typed up by Lester Holt.
OK, maybe not that. But Grynbaum's report ventured well beyond the narrow realm of profit and loss. It seems to us he should have reported overall viewership numbers—even overall numbers in weekday prime time—before restricting himself to the numbers which make the corporate suits glad.
MSNBC's numbers have been "movin' on up" very fast. That said, it isn't yet number one overall, not even in weekday prime time. Fox has been imploding of late, but the famously "fair and balanced" channel isn't dead just yet.
MSNBC isn't yet number one, not even in weekday prime time. We think Grynbaum should have reported that basic fact in an accessible manner.
As for MSNBC itself, you may have noticed its full-page ads in the June 1 New York Times and the Washington Post. The ads pimped MSNBC's new "#1" status. (We can't link you.)
The murky language in the ads struck us as perhaps a bit deceptive. Several analysts said to us, perhaps with a catch in their throats:
"Perhaps a bit deceptive, you say? Isn't that what cable is for?"
Revenge of the old viewers' lawns: Say what? People aged 25-54 were only a quarter of Maddow's audience? Who the heck is watching so-called cable news?
Uh-oh! For all three "cable news" channels, the audience skews toward old. For years, we liberals have been encouraged to laugh at the advanced age of the Fox News audience, without being told about the age of the crowd at our own flawless channel.
As the analysts noted, the silly spinning of such facts is largely what cable is for.
"Cable news" viewers tilt toward old. The suits don't care about these viewers, but you perhaps possibly should.
No, they don't establish ad rates, underwriting those very large salaries. But in fairness, they aren't completely useless.
You see, the geezers tend to vote. For that reason, they deserve to get spun and misled just like everyone else!