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.

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