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 said.

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 said.

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 viewers.

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 this year.

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 thinking.

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 drama dissipates.

Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp. share common ownership.

Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 01, 2020 15:38 ET (19:38 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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