In the first half of 2007, MSNBC’s ratings surged more than 30 percent over the previous year. A fair amount of that progress was thanks to the breakout performance of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. This comes at a time when competing cable news networks were struggling to maintain single-digit growth. But not all of the players on MSNBC’s team were pulling their weight. Looking at the schedule from 4:00p to 10:00p, there is an obvious underachiever in the mix.
The two poorest performing programs in the lineup are the ones hosted by Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson. There is something about his presence that, when broadcast, sucks the audience into a space/time continuum and disgorges them from the TV universe. And it isn’t just that he vaporizes viewers, he also has the dubious distinction of declining 9% while the network that employs him is enjoying a ratings revival.
It is a little surprising that, in the face of such manifest failure, the network brass cling so tenaciously to this loser. What do they see in Tucker that persuades them that he will ever deliver an audience that compares to his network colleagues? It certainly can’t be the detritus of his broadcast career that includes such notorious bombs as CNN’s Crossifre and PBS’ Unfiltered. Neither has he distinguished himself as an author or newspaper columnist. He couldn’t even survive the first round of his embarrassing outing on Dancing With the Stars, where his choreography consisted largely of his remaining seated. [About which, Olbermann chided, "Any dance a man spends part of which in a chair is, by definition, a lap dance!"]
As there is no professional explanation for MSNBC’s mysterious loyalty, there must be some other excuse for carrying Tucker’s dead weight in the midst of the network’s bull run. Perhaps it has something to do with his pedigree. Tucker is the son of Richard Warner Carlson, a former U.S. ambassador, director of the U.S. Information Agency, and president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is currently Vice Chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a pro-war, right-wing think tank whose Board of Advisors includes Gary Bauer, Bill Kristol, Zell Miller, and Richard Perle. Crime may or may not pay, but nepotism and having friends in high places certainly does.
If MSNBC were responsibly managing its resources, Tucker would be on the chopping block and the development team would be auditioning Olbermann clones. Wouldn’t it make sense to emulate a winner? When you consider the financial consequences at stake, it is incomprehensible that the network would abandon this time slot to a proven washout when they could significantly increase ad rates and sales by turning it over to a fresher, better informed, and more talented personality (The News Corpse Report?).
The problem may be that their development staff is even less talented than Tucker himself. It’s not as if they don’t have a broad variety of AAA players that could be called up: Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Rachel Maddow, Stephanie Miller, Sam Seder, Taylor Marsh, Jim Hightower, Laura Flanders, Harry Shearer, or any other of the many distinguished progressive commentators.
It should also be noted that there is no law against introducing some actual creativity into the process. How about shaping a new model for cable infotainment that incorporates some of the dynamics and vitality of these here InterTubes™? If I were VP of program development for MSNBC, I would be proposing a hybrid show that was not just a parade of talking (butting) heads robotically spinning predigested blathering points. It would be a multi-host program with distinct segments that draw on the wisdom of the crowd.
One segment would feature news on politics and popular culture ala The Huffington Post. Another would concentrate on investigative reporting that allows viewers to participate in the sort of citizen-powered journalism that Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo does so well. There would be a segment that holds the media accountable to higher standards by documenting its successes and failures as Media Matters does. And, finally, I would include community moderated stories that are promoted to the air by the recommendations of viewers in a manner similar to that on the Daily Kos.
The segments would not be of fixed duration, but would expand or contract as dictated by the urgency of the content. There should be a liberal sprinkling of humor where appropriate, with regular comic voices invited to appear. This format provides the opportunity to feature numerous hosts and guests that are not often granted airtime in today’s constricted TV environment. And all of the above segments should include heavy doses of viewer participation via an affiliated web site that permits users to post articles, comments, videos, and even fully produced stories.
Now, I’m a realist, and I don’t expect the toadies in TV development to suddenly grow spines and produce something that is innovative and challenging. This is a problem that is pandemic in the industry and not in any way limited to MSNBC. CNN is likewise coddling a ratings disaster named Glenn Beck. But I do believe that the studio bean counters know how to read a balance sheet, and if they have any inclination to actually do their jobs, then Tucker will shortly be canceled and the two daily hours that are currently being wasted on him will be put to better use. That’s not a particularly tall order when you consider that, next to Tucker, infomercials for Ginsu knives would qualify as better use.