Fueled by the surge behind prime time hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, MSNBC has jumped to second in the prime time cable news ratings. Although CNN and MSNBC each have about half of the audience share of Fox News, March will be the first month ever that CNN has finished third in the ratings.
The problem for CNN is that Fox and MSNBC are both experiencing double digit ratings growth. For FNC, ratings are up 30%, and at MSNBC ratings are up 24%. In contrast, CNN has seen their ratings remain flat. The Fox News prime time lineup is still dominant over the competition, but MSNBC has been able to bypass CNN at 8 pm with Olbermann’s Countdown program dominating Campbell Brown’s show. Most interesting to me is the fact that Rachael Maddow’s 9 pm show has almost caught up to CNN’s Larry King Live. It’s my guess that it is only a matter of time before Maddow surpasses the stale King.
In an AP story about the rating CNN claimed that this was no big deal, but in reality it is a big deal. CNN is the founding father of 24/7 cable news, but this status also appears to be part of their problem. The landscape of cable news has changed. Prime time shows are supposed to entertain while they inform. This is what the prime time lineups at FNC and MSNBC do, or to put it another way, CNN has become a bland network that lacks an identity.
Although the former giant still is capable of putting up monstrous ratings when there is a breaking news story, on a day to day basis CNN seems to have no idea what direction it is going in. Compare this to Fox and MSNBC who know exactly who their audience is and they direct their programming towards them. Ask yourself this question who is the first person that pops into your head when you think of CNN? In all honesty, the first thing I think of is the voice of James Earl Jones saying, “This is CNN.”With Olbermann/Maddow occupying the left, and O’Reilly/Hannity on the right, where does CNN fit in?
Much of the credit for MSNBC’s prime time rise is justifiably given to Olbermann, but even more so, I think Rachael Maddow has been the recent driving force behind prime time. Now that Olbermann has a proper partner in Maddow, MSNBC has been able to create a bloc of programming and further its progressive brand. While Olbermann’s show is doing fine, it is Maddow’s show that is improving by leaps and bounds every week.
Most troubling for CNN is that a 10 pm replay of MSNBC’s Countdown is doing well against CNN’s Anderson Cooper. While people on the left and right tend to engage in the battle between MSNBC and FNC, what is often overlooked is that the real loser in the prime time cable news wars is CNN, which still has its powerful brand name but it is lagging behind the competition in terms of both star power and interest.