MSNBC’s Brand Identity Dilemma

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow at the State Department on March 14 in Washington

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

Brian Stelter’s interesting piece on MSNBC closes with some rumor-mongering suggesting that Ezra Klein may go from being a frequent guest host to a regular host. Whether that comes to pass or not, the interesting issue here is the suggestion that under Comcast’s management, MSNBC is finally digging out from under its brand identity dilemma.

The basic issue facing the network for a long time has been that with Fox News on the right and CNN firmly established as an international news brand, the obvious thing for MSNBC to do is to be a cable news network that appeals to liberals. A cable network for liberals is probably not going to be as financially successful as a cable network for conservatives for basic demographic reasons. Conservatives are, on the whole, more affluent than liberals and also older and therefore more likely to be at home watching television. What’s more, the liberal political coalition is more diverse, which means it’s harder to appeal to everyone. But Rachel Maddow has a very successful show, so MSNBC is building out a roster of programming on the theme of “stuff that people who like Rachel Maddow would also like.” Chris Hayes’ show fits the bill, Melissa Harris-Perry’s show fits the bill, Al Sharpton’s show fits the bill, Lawrence O’Donnell has done a good job of conforming himself to that model, and you can easily envision an Ezra Klein show fitting in.

The awkward thing for MSNBC in this regard is that it’s affiliated with NBC News—and the brand identity of the Today Show, NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams, and Meet The Press is totally different from the cable-network-for-liberals branding. If it were just a matter of the Nightly News you might be able to brush that off easily, but the fact that Meet The Press and especially the Today Show totally dominate their categories is a big deal.

In the abstract, CNN has the cable network that would make the most sense as the cable adjunct to NBC News while the cable-only format would be well-suited to MSNBC’s business strategy. If media conglomerates were like sports teams, Comcast could offer to swap MSNBC and draft picks to Time Warner for CNN, and it would be win-win. But in the real world, this tension in terms of higher-level branding has long restrained MSNBC’s overseers from embracing the obvious “make it a network that liberals like” strategy. But with Microsoft now entirely out of the picture and Comcast taking over ownership of NBC Universal, they seem to be settling on the idea that MSNBC should be the most successful business it can be without worrying much about how MSNBC and NBC relate. I think it’s the smart strategy—niche media is clearly where the growth is, and the market opportunity to fill the TV-for-liberals niche is just too clear and obvious to pass up.