People don’t need advice on how to watch TV. After all, by definition, TV is designed to entertain and inform, and sometimes in the burred world of modern journalism, those two goals are intertwined.
That’s why MSNBC poses an interesting journalistic case. The network seeks to present high-level, informed opinion from panels of experts moderated by skilled anchors who can guide the discussion and supplement it with their own expert facts. At least that is the theory.
But for anyone who has watched the network over the years, their current format falls short of those goals. It does not present consistently present expert opinions and when experts are on the show, they are mixed in with panels of less-informed guests or they do not get more than five minutes (a lifetime in TV time) to present their facts and informed opinions.
This is why viewers don’t have to feel they are missing out on the news or on being well-informed if they spend more than 30 minutes a day watching the network. You can watch your favorite on-air personality for the full hour their show is on the air, but if you watch longer than that, you get the feeling that it is Groundhog Day at MSNBC.
Instead, MSNBC relies on a very tired format of tired panelists (most often the usual suspects), who could not get any more information on the topic under discussion since they were guests on the same network just hours before. In short, these tired panelists act as placeholders for the camera, just as a stand-in for a Hollywood star on a movie set when it’s time to adjust the set and camera angles. Worse, these panelists look like they have just answered the exact same question posed to them an hour before. And commonly, that is exactly what happened.
But MSNBC is in a hybrid, news-opinion network. Its segments are one-hour long and face some significant problems due to the network’s limited topic coverage and political orientation format. Its coverage starts in Washington and then very predictably goes down to the local level to provide some color or gauge the local impact. That is standard top-down national news coverage.
MSNBC’s Faulty Format
The problem is that MSNBC’s daily focus of news doesn’t vary much. It’s all Washington all the time unless there is an event that demands a longer time frame, such as an election, epidemic, or war. In these cases, the longer-breaking event often dominates the entire broadcast day. This means it fits the network’s format, but it is boring to viewers unless they are obsessed with the event or the network is really presenting breaking news. In case MSNBC viewers have forgotten, a real news show is one that has an anchor and then different stories from a variety of locations nationwide and news stories posted by reporters with new, original footage and edited into a standalone segment. The length of the report depends on how important the story is considered by its editors.
In the golden days of pre-cable broadcasting, the 30-minute, prime-time (that was dinner hour in the old days) Walter Cronkite news show presented individual news reports that were essentially taken from the front page of the New York Times. As the Viet Nam War or Watergate emerged as historic national stories, they naturally get more air time. However, on average news days, the Cronkite broadcast was an overview of national news, often ending with a lighter, more comical short closing story.
But those were the old days. Cable broadcasting today is cheap. It does not pay for many local newsgathering crews and the film or tape editing required to support the story. Video editing expenses today are at a minimum. This is why we see loop tapes on MSNBC and CNN, for instance, of the same canned video in a 60- second report that doesn’t have a live reporter in an on-camera report.
As a result, MSNBC’s format is mostly done from the studio. It is not the news shows seen on CNN, PBS, the BBC, and even to a lesser degree FOX. News shows that present a variety of daily news items within a 30- or 60-minute time slot are uncommon today at the national level, but they thankfully exist at the local network level.
MSNBC’s Conservative Politics
MSNBC’s other deficiency is that it positioned itself as an alternative to the right-wing FOX network. The problem was that its political identity remains foggy. It is not liberal Democrat, nor was it ever Progressive Democrat. Just ask Ed Schultz, the most liberal and working-class of its on-air personalities, who was dismissed in 2015 when MSNBC launched its new, and still undefined, spot on the political spectrum and wanted to move to the political right. Schultz was too liberal to fit into the new mold.
Today, MSNBC is hard to define politically. It is anti-Trump and that has helped it attract millions of viewers. But is also was anti-Sanders and progressive, as evidenced by comments from Chris Mathews and Chuck Todd. It also has more than its share of former Republicans on-air (Morning Joe Scarborough and Nicole Wallace, White
House Communications Director under George W. Bush and campaign advisor for Sarah Palin). A regular guest is Michael Steel, the former chairman of the Republican Party. It also has some vehement free-market defenders, such as Stephanie Ruhle, a former derivatives salesperson for major global banks. If anything, the network is conservative Democrat, a risky place to be when the country is leaning left skewed to younger viewers.
So, will you get most of the news you need from MSNBC? Probably not. If your time is valuable or you don’t want to be bored, watching MSNBC for less than an hour a day is more than enough. You won’t get a full spectrum of daily national news or political opinions, but it is fact-based, which is more than FOX. The network will also be worthwhile during the election, but in more normal times, MSNBC’s limited and tired broadcast format has to be revitalized to be interesting for more than an hour a day.