When Keith Olbermann abruptly departed from MSNBC the network’s schedule was thrust into chaos. Lawrence O’Donnell was moved up two hours. Ed Schultz went from early evening to 10:00pm. Schultz’s old slot was a menagerie that eventually settled on Cenk Uygur for nearly six months.
All of this turmoil occurred at the same time that Glenn Beck was slated for an early termination of his contract at Fox News. That made much of the Fox schedule vulnerable as Beck’s audience formed the foundation for the evening news hour and primetime. So what did MSNBC do to take advantage of this opening?
Nothing – nothing at all. Their schedule barely budged. There were no new face outside of the 6:00pm slot that Schultz vacated, and even those were often familiar faces on the network. This was the best opportunity for MSNBC to challenge Fox during a period of weakness and MSNBC slept through it.
Now MSNBC is compounding their mistakes by (reportedly) replacing Uygur with Rev. Al Sharpton. The circumstances of Uygur’s departure are disturbing, but that’s a subject for another article. While Sharpton can be an aggressive advocate for lefty issues, he is hardly the banner carrier for progressive journalism. With a background predominantly in civil rights and social activism, his lack of experience in broadcasting does not portend well for MSNBC. His areas of expertise are rather narrow and he can come off as bombastic and rigid.
The purpose of a news and public affairs network is the same as any other network – attracting and appealing to viewers. Additionally, a news network must seek to inform and stimulate dialogue. Thus, having a journalist with broadcast experience in the anchor chair gives the program a significantly better shot at success.
MSNBC already has people on the payroll who fit the bill, and also expand the diversity of the roster, which is sorely needed. However, even some members of the National Association of Black Journalists are reticent about Sharpton. Instead, MSNBC should consider someone like Joe Madison, a long-time radio host based in Washington, D.C. with a record of success on the air and in the streets. Another attractive candidate would be Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University and a frequent guest on Rachel Maddow’s program.
Maddow presently has the highest ratings on MSNBC. That makes someone like Harris-Parry particularly compelling. A black woman with intelligence, insight, and personality could reproduce at 6:00pm the success Maddow has in primetime.
Ideally MSNBC could significantly strengthen their lineup by pitting Joe Madison against Fox’s lame Glenn Beck replacement “The Five.” Then give Hardball a single airing at 6:00pm, followed by Harris-Parry at 7:00. Leave primetime in tact with O’Donnell, Maddow, and Schultz (although I wouldn’t mind seeing Schultz replaced by someone like Chris Hayes or – don’t laugh – Anthony Weiner, an articulate, passionate progressive who didn’t really do anything that should forever disqualify him from public service).
If MSNBC is serious about competing with Fox News, they need to consider more dynamic solutions. Al Sharpton is never going to beat Bret Baier. And without a stronger leadin, the primetime schedule is unnecessarily hampered. The network has come close to Fox in important demographic ratings and they could put Fox away if they act now while Fox is wobbly and their management is being investigated internationally. The travails of Rupert Murdoch and company will make it difficult for them to concentrate on issues other than staying out of jail. MSNBC should capitalize on that distraction. The question is: Is MSNBC really serious about competing with Fox News?