MSNBC’s ratings have reached record lows. In this year’s third quarter, primetime shows All in with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show and Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell each posted their lowest quarterly ratings ever. Other programs, such as the network’s Morning Joe, were nearby on the bottom of the ratings pile. Overall, the network averaged a relatively dismal 328,000 total viewers in primetime, with 97,000 in the age 25-54 range.
MSNBC’s right-wing rival Fox News, meanwhile, remains a ratings king. The conservative-leaning network showed growth across the board, averaging a staggering 1,777,000 total viewers in primetime for Q3. The network also was home to the top 14 cable news programs among total viewers. That’s an outrageous statistic that demonstrates the extent at which Fox News is so clearly dominating its competition.
There are a few plausible explanations as to why MSNBC’s ratings have dipped in recent months. The network lost Keith Olbermann, the progressive equivalent of Bill O’Reilly, to ESPN. As the New York Times notes, MSNBC also typically takes a slide during periods of highly followed news events — such as ISIS and Ebola now — during which networks like CNN excel. It could also be that the programming simply isn’t interesting, with viewers preferring to get their news and analysis from other sources, both on cable and elsewhere.
While the decisions of network executives, cable operators, advertisers and audiences alike ultimately determine which news networks are most frequently watched, there’s a more obvious phenomenon at work here: conservative cable news does much better than liberal cable news. In a blog post on Breitbart from last year — another difficult time for MSNBC ratings — John Sexton suggested Fox News succeeds because it provides entertainment rather than conservative input on news issues. He cited Red Eye and The Five as key examples. “Fox has entertainment value and a sense of humor. They aim the programming at middle America not for elite Salons in DC [and] New York. The same cannot be said of MSNBC,” Sexton wrote.
Another possible explanation is that cable news skews older, as do supporters of the Republican Party. Out of the nearly 1.8 million total average viewers for Fox News in Q3, only an average of 309,000 fall in the 25-54 age. That’s a significant chunk of the viewing population that falls outside of advertisers’ ideal demographic. As a Pew Research report noted, 50% of Millennials claim they lean towards supporting the Democratic party, compared to 34% who support Republican. Overall, younger generations are increasingly identifying as politically independent. Young people with progressive views simply aren’t getting their news from traditional cable television.
Another interesting phenomenon is that CNN was second to Fox News in the Q3 ratings, but trailed significantly in average total prime time viewers at 553K, with 185K in the A25-54 range. Multiple media bias studies, including one that analyzed news sources and audiences via Twitter, place CNN slightly left-of-center on the political spectrum. The network, like Fox News, also offers high entertainment value, with popular hosts like Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper and an infamous tendency to use new gadgets and technology in the studio.
The 2014 Q3 ratings don’t just represent which cable networks are succeeding in the competition to attract viewers to sell to advertisers. They represent the American tendency to favor news that slants to the right, with a general disinterest in news that slants the opposite way. Conservative news does much better than liberal news, despite both showing obvious and expected biased. More centrist networks like CNN do well compared to progressive networks, but still return pitiful ratings compared to the titans of Fox News. It’s as if the ratings slowly trickle down the political spectrum, from right to left. Despite the media’s influence, the nation remains locked in a political gridlock between both sides, although media outlets on both the left and right have been suggesting that the Republicans are poised to retake Congress after the upcoming elections.