Accuracy in Media

In an interview with Bob Fernandez of the Philadelphia Inquirer, MSNBC president Phil Griffin spoke confidently about the network’s future and his desire to overtake Fox in the ratings.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin said it had been a long climb to respectability for the 24-hour network, launched in the mid-1990s as a joint venture between Microsoft Corp. and NBC.

“Don’t empty the stadium” is the phrase they use at MSNBC, Griffin said – in other words, don’t insert a host into a prime-time slot who would lead viewers to switch channels.

What has helped MSNBC’s ratings, Griffin said he believed, is the smooth flow of hosts that begins with Matthews at 7 p.m., then continues with Lawrence O’Donnell at 8, Rachel Maddow at 9, and Ed Schultz at 10.

“I want to make up ground with Fox News. That’s the goal,” said Griffin, who thinks the economics of MSNBC will catch up with the reality of higher viewership. “We have beaten CNN, and we are a solid No. 2. . . . Fox is now in our vision, and there are a couple of hours where it’s getting close.”

If I were Griffin I would check my rear-view mirror a little more closely. CNN’s ratings surged in the first quarter, giving the former cable news champ a victory over MSNBC in the key demo, both in the daytime and prime time.

That surge was largely due to the spate of international news from Egypt, Libya and Japan, which is CNN’s core strength, and as interest wanes, so likely will the ratings. However, it still gave CNN bragging rights for a short time and slowed down MSNBC’s momentum, and exposed MSNBC’s glaring weakness when it comes to breaking news.

Stronger ratings  haven’t resulted in a fatter bottom line, though:

Its new found ratings muscle hasn’t translated – at least not yet – into bigger money for MSNBC. Cable and satellite-TV distributors pay about 17 cents per subscriber to carry the network. By contrast, they pay 51 cents per subscriber for CNN and 70 cents per subscriber for Fox News, according to the research firm SNL Kagan.

CNN, part of Time Warner Inc., charges a premium for advertising because of its high-profile brand and had revenue of $1.2 billion and cash flow of $541.6 million in 2010, SNL Kagan said. Fox News had revenue of $1.5 billion and cash flow of $816 million. MSNBC trailed with revenue of $378.6 million and cash flow of $168.8 million.

As for Griffin’s claim that MSNBC is getting close to Fox in a couple of hours, the ratings don’t prove him out. Fox normally attracts an audience twice the size of MSNBC’s  in every hour of prime time.

MSNBC may have made ratings progress in the last couple of years, but I don’t think Roger Ailes is losing any sleep over Griffin’s stated goal.

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