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MSNBC’s Collapse Began With The Departure of Keith Olbermann

MSNBC’s ratings have plunged this year, and the the domino effect of bad decisions that have killed the network’s ratings began with the departure of Keith Olbermann.

Last week, Olbermann himself took to Twitter and said a bit about his former employer’s ratings. First Olbermann retweeted, “This is sarcasm, yes? RT @JonahsSeafood Very, Very impressive #ratings @msnbc. Especially without the help of @KeithOlbermann. @maddow great job filling his void.”

When he was asked if he was taking a shot at Maddow, the former Countdown host replied:

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Olbermann suggested that the network is in a state of collapse, and the second quarter ratings for 2013 have proven him right. MSNBC’s primetime is down 16% overall, and 12% with younger viewers. The primetime numbers for individual programs are even worse.

All In With Chris Hayes has been a complete ratings disaster. Hayes has lost 28% of The Ed Show’s viewers, and he is down 10% from Ed Schultz’s ratings with younger viewers. Hayes’ ratings struggles have led to Rachel Maddow having her worst quarter since 2008. Maddow’s struggles have led to Lawrence O’Donnell losing 15% of his total viewers, and 22% of his younger viewers.

MSNBC’s ratings decline can be traced back to three bad decisions.

The decision that started their decline was the departure of Keith Olbermann from the network. MSNBC head Phil Griffin thought that he could replace Olbermann with Lawrence O’Donnell. That decision spectacularly failed, but his next choice for the timeslot would prove to be more of a winner. Ed Schulz was the perfect fit for MSNBC’s 8 PM. His program had a bit of the sort of emotion and tone that Olbermann’s did. MSNBC rose to second in the cable news ratings. Occasionally, they even beat ratings leader Fox News.

However, earlier this year Phil Griffin made his second bad decision. Griffin decided that Schultz’s old school liberalism didn’t fit with the primetime lineup that he wanted to build. Griffin wanted a clone army of Maddow wonk nerds in primetime, and the blustery blue collar Schultz didn’t fit the bill. This resulted in Ed being shuffled off to the weekends to make room for Griffin’s third bad decision.

In his quest for hipper and younger viewers, Griffin installed Chris Hayes as the new 8 PM host. The Hayes that was smooth on his weekend morning show was quickly replaced by a host that has been at times painful to watch. Chris Hayes is the round peg that MSNBC keeps trying to fit into the square hole. It isn’t working. Nearly 30% of the viewers who tuned in for Ed have tuned out Chris Hayes. The flood of new young viewers hasn’t materialized, and Hayes is looking more and more like the television equivalent of a death row inmate.

MSNBC could have been positioning itself as a future challenger to Fox News. Instead, potential MSNBC viewers have moved over to a revived CNN. It is impossible to predict where MSNBC might be today if Keith Olbermann was still anchoring 8 PM, but the network would likely be in better shape than they currently are.

There is no chance of Olbermann coming back to MSNBC. He will be anchoring TBS’s MLB postseason coverage, and it being reported that he is talks with ESPN to host a late night talk show on ESPN 2. If the ratings for All In don’t improve, the move that makes the most sense is convincing Ed Schultz to come back to primetime, and sending Chris Hayes back to the weekends.

MSNBC has filled their bench with Maddow clone wonks, and unless they really want to break the mold and promote an African-American woman, it looks like they are going to sink or swim with Hayes.

Looking back, it’s clear that MSNBC’s downfall began with the bad decision to let Keith Olbermann walk out the door.

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