The important thing to remember about MSNBC is that, for most of the time they’ve been on the air, they haven’t known what the fuck they’re doing. When the cable news network signed on in 1996, they didn’t adopt an explicitly partisan viewpoint, like fellow CNN competitor Fox News (which debuted the same year); for a good long while, they followed the CNN script to the letter, with straight-up news complemented by opinion shows from all over the damn place. And I do mean “all over the damn place”: at one time or another, they gave prominently placed shows to nutjob homophobe birther Alan Keyes, nutjob homophobe nationalist Michael Savage, nutjob conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura, and nutjob gay-bashing bowtie enthusiast Tucker Carlson. (Mull that over: the guy who took over Bill O’Reilly’s slot on Fox used to have a prime-time show on MSNBC. Turn, turn, turn.) They used to simulcast Don Imus’s radio show in the morning! They were just throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck!
So when they stumbled into a niche as an outlet for progressive voices, a kind of anti-Fox, it wasn’t some carefully planned strategy; they gave a show to Keith Olbermann because Keith Olbermann was a name, and Olbermann set his sights on George W. Bush at a moment when Bush was becoming spectacularly unpopular, and suddenly, for the first time, the network had a real hit. So, when you have a hit, you replicate it; when Phil Griffin was named president of the network in 2008, he canned Dan Abrams’s milquetoast hour and replaced him with frequent Olbermann guest and guest anchor Rachel Maddow, and her hour was an immediate smash when it debuted in the fall of 2008, in the home stretch of a riveting election featuring a charismatic liberal candidate.
When that candidate won the office, the network scurried to fill its prime-time schedule with more left-leaning hosts: Lawrence O’Donnell (another frequent Olbermann guest and host) at 10pm, progressive talk show host (and, like Olbermann, a former sportscaster) Ed Schultz at 6pm. The network embarked on an expensive and extensive branding campaign, with stylish “Lean Forward” print ads and TV spots. And then the wheels fell off the wagon. Ratings dipped after the Obama honeymoon ended; progressive viewers looked to MSNBC when it was fighting an enemy and boosting a hopeful dream candidate, not when it was reporting on the compromises of a president. Olbermann, after years of fighting with execs (as he has been wont to do), quit the network in 2011 (as he has been wont to do); frequent Maddow guest Chris Hayes, who was his ultimate replacement at 8pm, struggled to find a reliable audience in the off-election year. So did the whole network, in that and the years that followed. (Full disclosure: I’ve appeared as a guest on Hayes’s show, though not for a while and, presumably, not anymore.)
But then in 2016 – as in 2008 – a high-stakes presidential campaign brought progressives back to the network, and when the racist, sexist, breathtakingly stupid, sentient Reddit thread that the Republicans somehow nominated somehow won, those viewers stuck around. The network has seen its biggest ratings in years. Maddow’s nightly long-reads on the developing story of Russian collusion in the election have become a must-watch. Hayes before her and O’Donnell after are experiencing the best ratings of their run. MSNBC began frequently beating CNN and even the previously indestructible Fox News in the “money” demo of 18-54 year olds; this week, Fox is coming in third in prime time, experiencing something akin to MSNBC’s struggles after Obama’s election, no longer able to rile up viewers against the enemy in charge. (In fact, their refusal to so much as glance at the many scandals of the Trump White House with anything more than cynicism is even causing ratings to drop in the daytime.)
So MSNBC is taking the logical next step: they’re cancelling their second highest rated show. Wait, what?
Last weekend, Huffington Post’s Yashir Ali reported Lawrence O’Donnell’s current contract with MSNBC is down to its last month, and “the cable network does not appear to be interested in renewing his deal.” There had been, Ali reported, no active negotiations between the net and the host, a process that usually begins several months before the conclusion of a contract. And at the heart of that disinterest was a conflict with current NBC News chairman Andy Lack, who has been at the center of the network’s current, baffling attempt, in the face of their left-leaning programming’s smash success, to lean… right.
More specifically, the Lack-led NBC has attempted to rebrand the network as “hard news,” removing low-rated opinion shows from its daytime hours and creating a prime time hour for disgraced NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams, because mediocre white men get limitless second chances. But they also inexplicably scooped up exiting Fox News hosts Greta Van Susteran and Megyn Kelly. Van Susteran, who winkingly pitched her 6pm show For the Record as “fair and balanced”, has watched that hour tank in the ratings; Kelly has not yet made her NBC News debut, but has confirmed that her hour-long Sunday night news show will compete directly with 60 Minutes, which, sure, snort, okay. Meanwhile, MSNBC is handing a daytime hour to former Bush II communications director/McCain ’08 senior advisor Nicolle Wallace, and is “in talks” to do the same for loathsome right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt. (Also worth noting: while they’ve hired up all these white people, commentators of color like Tamron Hall, Reverend Al Sharpton, Goldie Taylor, and Melissa Harris-Perry have either been shown the door or exited following well-reported slights.)
So the question is: why? There’s, yes, a strange strain in mainstream media at the moment of attempting to “balance” the old Liberal Media canard by boosting Trump voters and conservative commentators (putting climate change denials and “Say something nice about Trump” columns into the New York Times, that kinda thing), but the notion that Fox viewers would somehow follow Van Susteran over to MSNBC, or watch conservative figures boosted there, is patently absurd. From the moment Olbermann became the network’s loudest voice in the mid-2000s, conservative media has made MSNBC a boogeyman, and its consumers are as unlikely to switch their sets over as MSNBC’s would if, say, Fox News gave Ed Schultz a show. (A reversed hypothetical really does let you see how fucking absurd these moves are.) And there is some speculation that the network’s indifference toward O’Donnell is a matter of ego; Lack reportedly asked O’Donnell to move his show from 10pm to 6pm (perhaps to move Williams earlier in the line-up), and O’Donnell refused, with cover from his contract.
The HuffPo story and similar dispatches may have put the network on the spot; Variety is reporting that contract talks are finally underway, and last night, O’Donnell seemed to confirm as much on Twitter. “I’m sorry this situation has become public,” he wrote, and if his contract is renewed, that may end up being the takeaway: how did this even become a thing? This, from Ali’s report, is telling:
If MSNBC failed to renew O’Donnell’s contract, it would be unprecedented, given his high ratings, but multiple sources tell HuffPost that Lack attributes O’Donnell’s high-ratings to heightened interest in Trump and the fact that his program’s lead-in is the top-rated Rachel Maddow show, and doesn’t credit O’Donnell’s star power and fan base for the high-ratings. Despite this, Lack is said to dislike when people attribute his cable network’s blockbuster ratings to Trump: He believes, according to multiple sources, that the high ratings are largely a product of his programming decisions.
So we end up right back where we started: most of the time, these people really have no idea what the hell they’re doing.