The New York Times has a decent-sized story about the impact of Keith Olbermann’s departure on MSNBC and another one today on the larger challenges the channel faces. The piece describes two core problems for the network: the fact that it’s getting beat by competitors between 8 and 11, and the fact that it’s getting beat on news. But is Keith Olbermann the real problem for MSNBC?
Even before his defenestration from MSNBC and his move to Current, Olbermann’s ratings were falling. In 2010, Olbermann drew an average of 1 million adults and 268,000 adults aged 25-45 during the 8PM hour (that first number was down 11 percent from 2009, the second, down 25 percent in the same time period).
Olbermann wasn’t alone in his woes at MSNBC, though his numbers were slightly worse than some of his colleagues. Rachel Maddow’s numbers fell between 2009 and 2010, too, down 6 percent overall and 14 percent in that coveted demographic of younger viewers. And MSNBC saw its viewers between 8 and 11PM go down 9 percent overall and 18 percent in the demographic. In the same time period, for the same viewing hours, Fox News saw a slight but slower decline, falling 5 percent overall and 6 percent in the demographic. And CNN, which is now challenging MSNBC for that third-place, looked like it was in free-fall. Its number of overall viewers in the 8-11 hour was down 36 percent, and its number of young viewers was down 37 percent, to 184,000.
But this September, MSNBC pulled in 269,000 viewers ages 25-45 in the prime-time block, up modestly from an average of 249,000 in 2010. But CNN’s made a dramatic improvement, lifting its young viewers from an average of 184,000 for the primetime block in 2010 to an average of 257,000 in September 2011. The Times piece from which I’m drawing those numbers doesn’t break out Fox’s numbers for the full month of September, but looking at day-by-day data on TV By the Numbers, they appear relatively consistent with the figures the network pulled in 2010, when it averaged 2.4 million people total and 612,000 younger viewers in primetime.
So Olbermann’s numbers and MSNBC’s were declining at the time he left. And even in the context of Current’s smaller viewership, he’s continued his downward slide. MSNBC is available in 78 million households in the U.S., while Current is available in 60 million. But absent the network profile of MSNBC, Olbermann’s ratings initially fell more than the 23 percent that might have been the difference between the two networks and have continued downward. The week of Olbermann’s launch on Current, an average of 354,000 people total and 131,000 in the demo tuned in. The next week, after the novelty wore off, it was down to an average of 253,000 total and 93,000 in the demo. By August 1-5, those numbers had fallen to an average of 208,000 and 85,000 in the demo.
With all this context, it’s not totally clear to me that Olbermann, even if he’d stayed, would have reversed his ratings trend—and the network’s. Olbermann’s departure was messy and public. But while the resulting vacancy may have prompted CNN to shake up its lineup, it wasn’t the only thing affecting MSNBC’s viewership. How to get the network growing significantly in prime time is a question that’s much more complicated than one hour, and one anchor.