This is the story of MSNBC in a nutshell: It rose to prominence on its criticism of George W. Bush, peaked during Barack Obama's historic 2008 campaign, and, by criticizing Republicans and championing liberal causes, sustained its viewership in the years that followed.
MSNBC suffered harder loses in 2013 -- in terms of both viewership and revenue -- than either of its competitors at Fox News and CNN, according to Nielsen data featured in a new Pew Research report. Prime-time viewership declined by a staggering 24 percent (nearly twice the loss sustained by CNN and four-times that sustained by Fox News). Daytime viewership fell by 15 percent, even as it rose at both of the other networks.
On the revenue side, MSNBC was projected to decline by 2 percent, while both CNN and Fox News were projected to experience growth of 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively. MSNBC was expected to bring in $475 million in revenue: less than half what CNN will make and roughly one-quarter of what Fox News will make.
Conventional wisdom has it that cable news doesn't have much of a future: The audience is old and getting older, the television landscape is growing more and more fractured, appointment viewing is becoming a thing of the past, etc. Certainly, every cable news network lost viewers last year. But this version of events often ignores the incredible revenue gains made each year by Fox News (like a rocket) and CNN (far more gradual, but we're still talking billions).
MSNBC isn't seeing that growth, and it's not clear how it will. In a world where liberals wanted to be outraged by George Bush every night, or celebrate the rise of Barack Obama, MSNBC had a theory of the case. But now Obama's presidency has turned into a slog, and MSNBC isn't compelling. Prime time is just hours of what often seems like feigned outrage. And the daytime strategy -- giving shows to kids in their 20s and 30s, in an apparent bid to reach the youths -- is comically bad, and rendered absurd at every commercial break when the catheter ads come on.
2016 will help MSNBC, as it will help all cable news networks, but that's not a long-term business strategy. The network needs to figure out what it's going to do in the off years. There are a few powerful brands that are worth maintaining -- Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Morning Joe -- but the rest is in need of a restart.
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