By Benjamin Mullin and Joe Flint
CNN and Fox News enjoyed a ratings boom this spring when there
was a tsunami of news, between the escalating Covid-19 crisis and
nationwide protests over police brutality.
The same didn't happen at MSNBC. Its overall viewership barely
grew in the second quarter, and the network lost viewers in the key
demographic for advertisers, according to Nielsen data.
More than any other cable news channel, MSNBC relies on
political news to drive its ratings. Its prime-time audience surged
in the years after the 2016 presidential election, helping it
leapfrog CNN, as Americans followed nonstop news involving
President Donald Trump, such as special counsel Robert Mueller's
Russia investigation and the president's impeachment.
But for much of 2020, politics hasn't been the big story. By the
end of the second quarter, CNN had doubled its audience in the key
news demographic of adults 25 to 54 years old, compared with the
end of 2019. Ratings leader Fox News jumped 55%, while MSNBC's
viewership rose about 5%, and it fell back into third place behind
CNN, according to Nielsen data.
MSNBC's total prime-time audience remains higher than CNN's.
When politics came back to the forefront in late August, MSNBC got
stronger, winning back viewers and narrowing its gap with CNN in
the key demographic. The network finished the third quarter with
its largest total audience so far this year. A contested
presidential election could mean intense viewer interest in
politics for a prolonged period, a likely boon for MSNBC.
The new chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, Cesar Conde, isn't
satisfied with MSNBC's heavy reliance on politics and is determined
not to miss out on ratings surges during big national news stories
such as the coronavirus crisis and the protests that followed the
killing of George Floyd, people familiar with his thinking
Mr. Conde is undertaking a review of NBCUniversal's news
operations that includes an analysis of MSNBC's audience trends,
according to people familiar with the matter. He wants to establish
a brighter line between daytime news coverage and evening opinion
analysis, they say.
The financial stakes are high. WarnerMedia's CNN and Fox Corp.'s
Fox News are both on track to post single-digit percentage growth
in TV ad revenue in 2020, while MSNBC is on pace to post a
single-digit percentage decline in TV ad revenue, according to
Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Intelligence.
Andrew Tyndall, a veteran TV news analyst, said CNN has a
reputation for covering national and international events beyond
politics and so is more likely to pick up viewers when big news
breaks. Fox News's audience is loyal to the network no matter which
stories are dominant, he said.
"The accidents of history have deprived MSNBC of the boost that
it normally would have expected in an election year," Mr. Tyndall
Mr. Conde has moved cautiously. People familiar with his plans
say he is still evaluating key executives, including MSNBC
President Phil Griffin, and is unlikely to make any big executive
changes until after the 2020 presidential elections, if at all.
Mr. Conde has made some big changes. He tapped Joy Reid to fill
the 7 p.m. slot on MSNBC that was vacated by Chris Matthews; her
show got off to a strong start, though it has seen some audience
erosion in recent weeks. He approved an overhaul of MSNBC's daytime
lineup that added an additional hour to Nicolle Wallace's
"Deadline: White House" program and moved Chuck Todd's weekday show
from 5 p.m. to 1 p.m.
He also greenlit Shepherd Smith's appointment to the anchor desk
at CNBC, part of a shift in prime-time at the network away from
lighter, unscripted fare and toward news programming. He has
challenged NBCUniversal's news group to aim for 50% of its
employees to be women or people of color in coming years.
Also in the works is a streaming channel on NBCUniversal's
Peacock service dedicated to progressive opinion programming,
according to people briefed on the plans.
Mr. Conde is navigating tensions between on-air talent at MSNBC
and NBC News, according to people familiar with discussions at the
network. Some journalists at NBC News are wary of appearing on
MSNBC. They believe the cable channel, which is popular with
liberal viewers and whose hosts are known for strident opposition
to the president, erodes NBC News's reputation as a straight-ahead
news brand. Staffers at MSNBC have dismissed these concerns, the
people said, arguing that the cable channel gives NBC News
journalists additional airtime and a ratings boost.
Mr. Conde, 46, rose swiftly through the ranks of
Spanish-language media before being appointed chairman of
NBCUniversal News Group earlier this year. He was a top executive
at Univision networks before moving to Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal
in 2013 to run Telemundo, where he revamped the programming network
and narrowed the ratings gap with Univision among total prime-time
Unlike many of his counterparts atop cable and broadcast news
divisions, who came up through reporting and producing roles, Mr.
Conde has spent the majority of his career on the business side,
though he has had oversight of news divisions.
Mr. Conde's handling of sensitive stories will be subject to
scrutiny at NBC News. His predecessor, Andy Lack, took criticism
for failing to air Ronan Farrow's investigation into allegations
that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted
multiple women. The story appeared in the New Yorker and shared a
Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Weinstein, who denied the allegations, was
convicted and sentenced to 23 years in a New York prison earlier
Mr. Conde plans to take a hands-off approach to coverage at
NBCUniversal, leaving the vetting of sensitive stories to editorial
leaders and lawyers, according to the people familiar with his
Staffers at MSNBC believe the result in the November election
could have a big impact on the network's ratings and those of its
rivals. If Mr. Trump is re-elected, they expect another surge in
viewership. If he loses and there is a peaceful transfer of power,
they expect viewership will level off or decline, as the national
Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp. share common
Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com and Joe
Flint at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 01, 2020 15:38 ET (19:38 GMT)
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