The Surrender Of MSNBC
While the official announcement wasn't a surprise to anyone working at the network, MSNBC officially canceled the primetime show "Donahue" on Tuesday, citing disappointing ratings.
And in fact, if you look at the raw ratings numbers, the struggling news channel may have a point. Originally conceived as a liberal alternative to the popular O'Reilly Factor, the show started slow and never recovered. During this month, a "sweeps" period in which ratings are watched closely to set advertising rates, "Donahue" averaged 446,000 viewers. O'Reilly drew 2.7 million viewers, up 28 percent from February 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But as it turns out, the picture isn't as clear as it initially seems.
While "Donahue" does badly trail both O'Reilly and CNN's Connie Chung in the ratings, those numbers have improved in recent weeks. So much so that the program is the top-rated show on MSNBC, beating even the highly promoted "Hardball With Chris Matthews."
Although Donahue didn't know it at the time, his fate was sealed a number of weeks ago after NBC News executives received the results of a study commissioned to provide guidance on the future of the news channel.
That report -- shared with me by an NBC news insider -- gives an excruciatingly painful assessment of the channel and its programming. Some of recommendations, such as dropping the "America's News Channel," have already been implemented. But the harshest criticism was leveled at Donahue, whom the authors of the study described as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace."
The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war......He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
A source close to Donahue claims that while he wasn't aware of the specific study, the tone and outcome aren't surprising.
"It's not a coincidence that this decision comes the same week that MSNBC announces its hired Dick Armey as a commentator and has both Jesse Ventura and Michael Savage joining the network as hosts. They're scared, and they decided to take the coward's road and slant towards the conservative crowd that watch Fox News."
While that assessment may be a bit harsh, it seems clear that MSNBC has surrendered quicker than most recent Mike Tyson opponents. Rather than building a unique voice, the news channel has opted to become a lesser alternative to the Fox News Channel. And that decision was one that even the NBC News study recommended against making.
"The temptation is to chase the audience that is already out there and play to what seems to be working at Fox. But there is another road, and if we build our unique voices from within, we have a chance to develop a loyal and valuable audience."
Well, I guess now we'll never know.
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