Cable news wars: Why MSNBC is suddenly surging on Fox News
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Cable news wars: Why MSNBC is suddenly surging on Fox News

Posted June 05, 2017 11:48 AM by Steve Deace paper-fortune-teller
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In the television business, they’re called “sweeps.” The three most important months of the year – February, May, and November – when networks put their best foot forward in an attempt to lure advertisers.

During this year’s February sweeps, Fox News decisively defeated its competitors. Thirteen of the top fifteen programs in cable news belonged to Fox. However, the just-concluded May sweeps tell a far different tale. You might say we’re making MSNBC great again.

The unabashedly progressive network has surged to a 17-year ratings high, the highest since back before it went decidedly Left, during the time when guys like Alan Keyes had slots. Four of its shows are now in the top eleven, including Rachel Maddow, who is number two overall behind Fox’s Tucker Carlson but is number one overall in the 25-54 demographic advertisers covet most. Furthermore, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell also beats Fox’s Sean Hannity head-to-head in that all-important demo as well.

That is a stunning reversal of fortune for MSNBC in just a few months. Fox still rules the cable news roost despite its controversial personnel changes in the past year, but it’s also showing some vulnerability for the first time in years.

Then there’s CNN, which continues to languish in the ratings despite being the industry pioneer. Its highest-ranked show remains Anderson Cooper, but he’s just the 20th-rated show overall. In fact, the replay of Tucker Carlson’s program outperforms him.

Allow me to translate what this means:

  • The market for Trump promotion is holding steady but maxed out.

  • The market for progressive programming is expanding.

  • There isn’t much of a market for anti-Trump hysteria.

For conservatives this is a case of good news-bad news.

Obviously, it’s good news to see even a heritage name like CNN is not being rewarded for simply opposing Trump on a nightly basis. And I would argue it’s also good for us to see the audience of arguably our most influential platform, Fox News, losing some of its zeal for “tiptoes between the raindrops” coverage of the Trump presidency.

Conservatism, I would argue, thrives in critical-thinking environments. The less tribalism and the more objectivity, the better for us. The Left knows this, too, which is why leftists created political correctness — so they wouldn’t have to risk an objective argument they might not win, but instead just label us as so beneath contempt we’re not worthy of engaging.

However, the growth of MSNBC is not good news for conservatives, because of the likely reason for it.

Though many conservatives may consider Maddow to be off the chain when it comes to Trump, she’s Cool Hand Luke compared to some of what airs on CNN. She’s at least throwing in a dash of actual progressivism with her Get Shorty routine. In other words, she’s giving her audience some solid food rather than just empty calories, and right now, anyway, they appear to be eating it up.

Also, just as Fox’s coverage has proven to be hugely influential in GOP intra-party politics, if this trend line continues for Maddow and MSNBC, they will be the same for Democrats in 2020. Those seeking that party’s nomination are going to need to have a message other than “Trump sucks, next on CNN.” They’re going to need to have an affirmative progressive policy message, which is what separates MSNBC from CNN at the moment. CNN is mindlessly deconstructing Trump, to the point that it trolls itself at times. MSNBC is doing so in order to promote a competitive viewpoint.

And you can tell MSNBC has confidence in its ability to do so when it brings in someone like George Will, who is certainly no David Gergen type when it comes to debate. Will has demonstrated some actual conservative beliefs for decades and isn’t a token “conservative” there to pearl-clutch to please his liberal contemporaries, as Gergen does. In other words, Will actually wants to pick some fights and not just play the part of patsy, which has been Gergen’s act for years.

“But, Steve,” some of you may say, “isn’t CNN losing because it’s just doing reporting and the other two are promoting an agenda?”

I suppose that’s possible, if you consider “reporting” to be “let’s again discuss the worst possible angle to every Trump story.” It’s also possible CNN is losing because people don’t know what it is. Does it want to be Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, or Anderson Cooper, who is somewhere in between those two?

To its credit, CNN has brought in some good conservatives recently like Amanda Carpenter and Jason Miller to balance out its panels. These are people with real beliefs they can capably defend. Even though Carpenter is no Trump fan and Miller used to work for him, each of them can say something other than “four legs good, two legs bad.” Still, while it’s refreshing to see CNN bring in folks who aren’t trained seals, it doesn’t appear to be helping, based on these numbers.

The next sweeps month is in November, and that’s when we’ll find out if this is all an outlier or a trend.

Editor's note: Steve Deace has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News.

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Steve Deace is broadcast nationally each weeknight on CRTV. He is the author of the book “A Nefarious Plot.”