The Theory of Relativity: Did MSNBC’s Collapse Fuel CNN’s Surge?

Morning-Joe-New-DayIn yesterday’s post TCG introduced a new approach to interpreting cable news ratings. In order to compensate for mid and long term variables in viewing trends we made the focus how the networks, and individual programs are faring relative to each other. This will tell us who, within the cable news marketplace, is up vs. the competition, and who is down. That’s how The Cable Game is played. By comparing the rank each show holds in the list of cable news programs (totaling 113 including the business channels) with where they stood one year ago, you can see who moved up the list (+), who moved down (-), and who held steady. Anyone who moved up in the current viewing environment (an overall decline in cable news viewership) should be in good shape, while the biggest losers have a future that is cloudy at best.

While MSNBC’s performance in the first quarter of 2015 might rightly be characterized as catastrophic, CNN has much to crow about. (Because of multiple schedule changes some programs do not have direct corollaries in the 2014 list):

  • +24 New Day (#31)
  • +12 Out Front with Erin Burnett (#15)
  • +12 The Lead with Jake Tapper (#23)
  • +10 Anderson Cooper (currently #12)
  • +10 Situation Room (#19)
  • +10 CNN Newsroom (#24)
  •  +8 Inside Man (over Piers Morgan) (#17)
  •  +8 Legal View (#29)
  •  +5 Wolf (#25)
  •  +3 At This Hour (#28)
  •    CNN Special Report (#20)
  •    CNN Tonight (#21)
  •    Parts Unknown (#22)
  •    Anderson Cooper (rerun) (#27)

That’s an impressive string of plus signs, but what’s instantly apparent is that the shows fall into two categories: New Day, and everyone else. New Day‘s improvement is at least twice that of any other program on the schedule. The high-profile addition of Alisyn Camerota, with a loyal fan base from years at Fox News, plus a bit of a slump at Fox & Friends (more on that forthcoming) may have combined to give Zucker’s baby an extra shot in the arm. Gains down the rest of the list are smaller but no less real.

Still, when even an unremarkable program like At This Hour makes gains, however slight, in the midst of declining overall viewership, I’d give at least partial credit to the massive viewer tune-out from MSNBC. And that’s why CNN is still not sitting pretty. Their recovery is genuine enough, but how loyal are the new viewers? Will disgruntled ex-MSNBC fans stick around if their old stomping ground sharpens up its operation? Will viewers tire of airplanes and travelogues? What of the last-minute shake-ups to overdose on breaking news, scattering the documentaries and reality shows to parts unknown on the schedule? And how long will people tolerate the monotony of Wolf Blitzer or the lunacy of Lemon? CNN is better off than a year ago, but still doesn’t even have one show in the top ten. Grade: shows improvement, but incomplete.

In our next post, the reigning champ of cable news proves that sometimes down can be up, relatively speaking.

Our thanks to TV Newser for the 2014 and 2015 25-54 Q1 data.

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