Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hardball Most Competitive since Obama '08 Election

On August 26, 2013 MSNBC made an adjustment to its evening lineup, moving Ed Schultz into Chris Matthews' live showing of Hardball at 5 PM and turning his repeat broadcast at 7 PM into his live showing.

MSNBC President Phil Griffen said:
"This move will concentrate the 'Hardball' audience to one key time period and enhance the flow of our evening programming"
The Huffington Post's media critic Jack Mirkinson said
"The move could also be something of an admission about the continuing struggles of Schultz's 8 PM replacement, Chris Hayes. His wonky show has failed to match the ratings the more blustery Schultz put up in the time slot."
Politico's media critic Dylan Byers assessment was:
"MSNBC's evening lineup will now return to a mishmash of two different kinds of liberals who, though united behind a progressive agenda, do not always see eye to eye on aesthetics."
A common problem with critics and pundits is that they have no training in analyzing data. They will tell you the ratings (number of viewers) were up (or down) vs. yesterday, or last month, or last quarter, or last year and give you no context or explanation as to why that particular comparison is relevant (or not).

The following graph shows that Phil Griffen made a GREAT move when he shifted the lineup. The 7 PM hour is now more competitive than it has been in 5 years (just after Obama was elected and also when Obama beat Clinton in the primary). The 8 PM hour while not doing nearly so well as in Olbermann's heydays is as well now as it has in the last 4+ years not counting the runup to the 2012 election. (ALL MSNBC shows did MUCH better than normal in the month or two before and after the '08 and '12 elections)

Now, if you are an accountant, you will want to know how the ratings change on a show because that will affect your revenue, but media critics/pundits aren't (usually) accountants. They want to tell you who is hot or not.

The world of cable news is mostly driven by what is happening today. Ratings go up or down for a show vs. the prior day because of whatever events are happening that day, whether there is a substitute host, which day of the week it is, etc. In a larger scale, the "events happening that day" are more interesting to mostly politics-driven cable news shows when you are nearing election day in a presidential year, or a major primary, or a major speech and also major news events (e.g government shutdown, a hurricane, a bombing, etc). So to compare the ratings of one show does on a day where something major happened to another day where nothing significant happened is generally pointless.

What is more relevant is how did a show do against its major competition.

That is why the graph above compares how close MSNBC was to Fox (i.e. 120% means MSNBC did better than Fox, 80% means Fox won). Because day to day news events will make the trends hard to follow, I averaged entire weeks. In this case I chose an average of the previous 4 weeks to make the trends evident. (A single major event can cause a ratings spike triple of a typical day, sometimes even 7 times greater). I also excluded special shows (e.g. live coverage of the convention, or live election results, or the president's State of the Union address, etc). I did not try to take into account when the normal host was not broadcasting that day only because I didn't have that data readily available. I am guessing the the vacations hosts take are roughly the same and often at the same time of year so that this is likely to have insignificant impact in a 4 week average.

I also chose to use the ratings in the key Demo (age 25-54) not only because advertisers (revenue) care mostly about this view age range, but because it is pointless for any cable news network to try to compete with the millions of retirees who are dedicated to Fox. The overwhelming majority of Fox viewers are over 65. That has always been true and the addition of Megan Kelly to their prime time lineup has not changed that.

Finally, ratings focused media critics should maybe give Chris Hayes a break as they look at these comparative numbers. Chris Hayes is now doing much better than Lawrence O'Donnell (who hosted at 8 PM between Jan 24, 2011 through Oct 21, 2011) and Ed Schultz (who hosted from Oct 24, 2011 to March 25, 2013) with the exception of the big ratings bump that every MSNBC show got 2 months before and after the 2012 presidential election and even better than Keith Olbermann did in his final year and a half (July 2009 to Jan 2011). While my data doesn't go before Dec 2005, I would bet (excluding the time around the 2004 election) that Chris Hayes current ratings vs. Fox are better than Keith Olbermann's were during his first 3.5 years of Countdown (Mar 2003- Oct 2006) or his prior 2 years at MSNBC ('97 to '98).

So give Chris Hayes some more time. As Fox's viewers continue to die off, there may yet again be a point where MSNBC is regularly competitive with Fox's O'Reilly.

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