December 11, 2006

MSNBC Celebrates Some Good November Numbers

Prime time 2005 690 401 1578
Prime time 2006 809 503 1326
Daytime 2005 449 257 888
Daytime 2006 507 286 753

For about five years now, the ratings pecking order for the three major cable news networks has seemed immovable.

The Fox News Channel, which combines energy and personality in a product that is particularly popular among conservatives, has led the pack. CNN, which has prided itself on the breadth and reach of its reporting even as it has struggled with its prime-time strategy, is a clear second. MSNBC, which never seemed to find a niche, has run a consistent and distant third – sparking occasional speculation about whether the plug should be pulled.

But according to recent Nielsen Media Research data, that cable network—which is trying to carve out an identity through its political coverage—is starting to make headway among viewers. The question is whether it can sustain that momentum.

Comparing November 2006 to the same month a year earlier, MSNBC racked up the most dramatic prime time gains of the three cable news channels. It generated a 25% increase in prime time audience, while CNN saw 17% growth and the Fox News Channel actually dipped 16%.

MSNBC performed strongly during the day as well, registering an 11% increase in daytime viewers compared to November 2005. This was just slightly less than CNN’s 13% gain and much better than Fox News’ drop of 15%.

Though it remains well behind its competition in sheer numbers, the upswing was welcome news for the long-struggling channel. And newly appointed General Manager Dan Abrams has plans to brand MSNBC as a haven for political junkies.

In November, which included the mid-term elections, MSNBC attracted its largest number of prime time viewers (503,000) for the year. And if you look at the growth in total viewers from the month before (October 2006), that number includes 21% more prime time and six percent more daytime viewers—the largest monthly spike in viewers all year.

What factors are working in MSNBC’s favor? One may be synergy with NBC News since some of the network’s top news stars—such as Tim Russert and Brian Williams—appeared on the cable channel during its election coverage. This corporate cooperation seems likely to increase with the physical shift of the MSNBC operations to NBC News’ New York headquarters.

MSNBC executives also think the changing political climate in the country might help the network, an outlet whose biggest prime time star, Keith Olbermann, leans noticeably to the left. “The mood has changed and people are looking for a different kind of coverage,” NBC News VP Phil Griffin said in a recent issue of Variety.

Reminiscent of Fox News’ personality-driven prime time fare, Olbermann’s opinionated 8 o’clock talk show—“Countdown with Keith Olbermann”—has become a surprise ratings success in recent months. Compared to November 2005, “Countdown” saw a 66% rise in total audience in November 2006.

To keep matters in context, cable news tends to generate a spike in audience during big events like elections, and all three networks showed some increase in prime time viewers from October to November 2006. But in registering the biggest gains of the three, MSNBC has at least fanned hopes that it has finally found a formula for making the cable news wars more competitive.