The Biggest Surprises for MSNBC In 2010: Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell

In a year of highs and lows, and plenty of circus like atmosphere and drama, two of the biggest pleasant surprises for MSNBC in 2010 were the late blooming success of The Ed Show, and the immediate success of The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. Let’s take a look at two of MSNBC’s bright spots for the year.

Back in 2009 MSNBC was looking for their next big hit, and they thought that liberal radio show host Ed Schultz would be it. After his debut program drew 825,000 total viewers, the audience quickly eroded and stayed mired in the 500,000 viewer range, but something interesting happened in 2010. As the post 2008 victory glow wore off and Democrats in Washington began to struggle, the audience for Ed Schultz’s blue collar populism began to grow.

According to MSNBC, “2010 marks the best total viewer performance in the 6 p.m. hour ever for MSNBC, with “The Ed Show” ranked #2 in both A25-54 and total viewers for the full year. Compared to 2009, “The Ed Show” is up +8% in A25-54 and +20% in total viewers, while CNN has dropped -28% in A25-54 and -29% in total viewers. CNN had their lowest 6 p.m. delivery in A25-54 since 1999 and the lowest total viewer average since 2002. “The Ed Show” had 642,000 total viewers (vs. 543,000 for CNN) and 157,000 A25-54 (vs. 149,000 for CNN).”

As more left leaning middle class Americans, the group that Ed Schultz advocates for, became disenchanted with the economy, they more they tuned in to The Ed Show. Back in 2009, I originally found the program to be a dull carbon copy of other MSNBC programs, but Schultz has found his voice, and his personality, love it or hate it, shines through. He has managed to capture the voice of blue collar America in a way that Keith Olbermann can’t. Ed Schultz has found his niche and he is one of the few cable news hosts who actually saw his audience grow in 2010.

The other surprise of 2010 was the immediate success of The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. For years, MSNBC viewers had been asking for a new 10 PM ET program to replace the nightly repeat of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and when they finally got their wish, they tuned in heavily and often. Powered by an interview with Vice President Joe Biden, The Last Word’s debut was MSNBC’s most watched program on September 28.

Unlike what Ed Schultz went through after his big debut, O’Donnell’s program has sustained its ratings, and on occasion draws more viewers than its lead in, The Rachel Maddow Show. O’Donnell’s show finished as the 16th most watched program on cable news, and The Last Word actually performed better with younger viewers than both Olbermann and Maddow. I had wondered when his show was announced how O’Donnell was going to approach doing a ten o’clock without rehashing all of the same stories and material that the hosts before him discussed.

The Last Word accomplished being different by doing something the other shows on the network haven’t been able to do. O’Donnell has been able to get Republicans on his show. Whereas Keith Olbermann doesn’t seem interested in having Republicans on, and Republicans are so terrified of Rachel Maddow that they won’t come on her show, O’Donnell has managed to attract a rather eclectic guest list.

O’Donnell is a veteran of both scripted television, and politics, and he and his staff appear to have an idea of how they want their show to be different from the others on the network. O’Donnell has shown himself to be a sharp interviewer who is not afraid to spar with his guests. His program is a great follow up to Rachel Maddow. Both shows share a bit of a wonkish tone, where opinion is secondary to describing what is going on and why it is happening.

MSNBC may never be in Fox News’ league, but the network has continued to add to its lineup. MSNBC’s initial success was accomplished on the back of Keith Olbermann, but now there is a lot more talent on the roster. I would love to see MSNBC add a minority host to prime time, and the network needs to be available in more homes around the country, which is something that Comcast will likely address when they take over NBC, but I think that they are missing the boat in one key area.

In my opinion, MSNBC won’t really grow until they stop catering to the small class of progressives that has issues with Obama. It is not a coincidence that the fastest growing show on the network features an old school blue collar liberal. Maybe MSNBC will someday get the message that there are a lot of potential viewers out there who might like to see less emotional criticism of the President, and more of a return to core liberal values. If MSNBC wants to reach and retain their audience in 2011 they should consider broadening the range of opinion that they present.

13 Replies to “The Biggest Surprises for MSNBC In 2010: Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell”

  1. I’d love to see you or Sarah or Hrafnkell or rmuse on MSNBC! You guys are my kind of liberals. Smart loyal without being blind or driven by irrational anger
    Happy new year!!

  2. @dani

    Thanks, we are a different breed that’s for sure. We all would be happy to “lean forward” and head on over to MSNBC.

    Happy New Year to you as well.

  3. I would love to see Melissa Harris-Perry have her own show on MSNBC and I agree with when you say:

    “MSNBC won’t really grow until they stop catering to small progressive class that has issues with Obama.”

  4. You guys would kick you know what:-) love the blog — don’t ever change please!!! Thanks for keeping me sane through all the political nightmares and walking me back after the firebaggers got me thinking it was all over.

    Happy New Year PoliticusUSA!

  5. You hit on one of their problems; with drama being the necessary ingredient for ratings, they had to crank up the outrage at the President but that majority of the base don’t want to hear nothing but negatives. It’s very interesting that the younger viewers like LO. I enjoy his show because he brings experience of knowing how hard it is to get things done in DC and he explains things to his audience. It’s obvious that the younger audience doesn’t need to get jacked up on hate/outrage to tune in; they want information from a trusted source but one with guts who will call out lies. This seems so clear to me. They don’t want someone partisan who will not dialogue with the other side but they want someone loyal to liberal social positions. In other words, sanity is in high demand it seems.

    I second the above — but nominate you to be our voice. Seriously, when are you going to start your podcasts again:-)

  6. You know Jason, I kinda like have a President who isn’t a DramaKing. I like the fact that he thinks things through and that he weighs the long term effects vs the short term effects.
    Yes, I too have been disappointed but all I have to do is think of what our world would have been like if McGrumpy and what’s her name had been elected.
    I also enjoy Lawrence O’Donnell’s show I try to catch it daily. Still trying to decide if I like Ed’s Show.
    Hope you all have a Happy New Year and Thank You all very much.

  7. Thank you. Don’t undervalue the intelligent readership. Discourse goes in both directions and its rewarding to be a writer here too.

  8. If you are not watching the Ed Show on MSNBC, you should be. It is one of the hardest hitting left-leaning shows on network tv. Lawrence O’Donnell, although I respect what he is trying to do, is falling into the ‘balance’ trap, and giving airtime to far too many right wing ideologues that only parrot far-right talking points and are not interested in dialogue or finding middle ground.

  9. I enjoy both Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell because they are the voice of people like me. However, I also like their different styles of accomplishing the same goal. Ed Schultz keeps people aware of the nonstop lies and overall negativity of FOX Noise, as well as being a strong voice for the powerless. I love the way he holds up public figures like Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and some of these politicians to well-deserved ridicule with his Psycho Talk feature. It’s similar in that sense to Keith Olbermann’s Worst Person segment. His tenacity and forthrightness are the biggest draw for me.
    As for O’Donnell, I like his cool, measured approach and his ability to bring even people of a different political persuasion on his show. And even though Keith Olbermann’s ratings might be decreasing, I still like to watch his show because although he can be over-the-top, he is factual. As you can see, I am a faithful viewer of MSNBC, which I discovered a couple of years ago. It was a great antidote to the ugliness and negativity of FOX.

  10. Well said. I’m always amazed at the comments here and the level of discourse. We’re very lucky:-)

  11. Lawrence O’Donnell rocks. I am pissed at Schultz right now after his ignorant rantings against President Obama but I might give him another chance starting Monday. Lawrence keeps his cool and I love him for that !

  12. I love the channel! Somehow I watch Mathews, Olberman, Maddow, O’Donnell and a little of scarborough. I think this channel is really honest, altho’ I think Anderson Cooper’s Keeping them honest is important too.

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